Joint statement from OUSA and COU: It’s time for the Ontario government to step up and invest in universities and students

January 15th, 2024 – “At this critical juncture for the postsecondary sector, Ontario’s universities and their students, stand united in urging the government to take immediate action to invest in higher education.

The pivotal role that universities and their students play in shaping our workforce and communities cannot be overstated. With a shared commitment to the future of higher education, we call for swift government action, nearly two months since the release of the Blue-Ribbon Panel’s recommendations to achieving financial health for universities.

The well-being of the sector rests on a three-fold partnership—universities, students, and government. We all have a role to play in shaping the future of higher education, and it is incumbent upon the government to provide the necessary investments to drive positive change for universities and the students they serve.

That is why we continue to urgently call on the government to immediately implement the recommendations in the Blue-Ribbon Panel Report. With increased financial support, the government can ensure Ontario’s students have the supports they need to be successful.

The time to act is now. Without government investment, Ontario risks compromising the high-quality world-class education, services and experiences our universities provide, limiting the boundless potential of Ontario’s students.

As the needs of today’s students continue to grow in complexity, ensuring access to financial assistance, mental health services and vital student supports is critical. According to the 2020 Ontario Undergraduate Student Survey, 67% of the respondents had experienced mental health concerns at some point during their postsecondary degree, with marginalized student groups, such as 2SLGBTQIA+ students, experiencing poor mental health and loneliness at a greater degree.

An investment in universities means an investment in our students and an investment in the province’s future.

In the face of more than a decade of declining provincial grants and the cut and freeze to tuition, demands on universities have only continued to grow as they provide an increasing number of much-needed student resources that are not funded by the Ontario government. In fact:

  • In 2021-22 Ontario universities spent more than $1.4 billion on student services such as counselling, career guidance and placement, student health, athletics and more. Overall, spending on student services has increased by nearly 22% over the past five years with universities spending an average of 13% of their operating fund on student services.
  • As housing demands increase, universities have added more than 6,400 new residence spaces over the past five years. There are currently more than 59,600 total residence spaces. More than 10,800 new spaces are projected to be added over the next five to six years.
  • To help ensure every willing and qualified student can access a university education, universities provide more than $1.3 billion annually in scholarships, bursaries and grants to those in financial need.

And as the needs of students continue to grow in both demand and complexity, we’ve seen a troubling trend of government underfunding over the last 20 years. It has created a perfect storm of financial pressure for Ontario’s universities. In fact: 

  • As least 10 Ontario universities are currently projecting an operating budget deficit for 2023-24 for a combined total of more than $175M, growing to $250M in 2024-25.
  • The Ontario government provides the lowest per-student university funding in Canada. According to the Blue-Ribbon Panel, Ontario universities are funded at only 57% of the national average.
  • The Ontario government cut domestic tuition by 10% and then froze it for the last four years, reducing the value of domestic tuition fee levels by 25%.
  • Due to the funding cap on domestic students, the Ontario government is not currently funding more than 20,000 domestic students, with an approximate cost to universities of $175 million.
  • The Ontario government’s implementation of Bill 124 and its subsequent repeal has had a retroactive impact on universities of more than $345 million this year and $266 million a year over the next two years.
  • The Ontario government’s underfunding of universities has forced cuts to student supports and services. To avoid more cuts, universities need investment in order to maintain and enhance the diverse programs, services and experiences that are important to students, such as mental health, career services, learning supports, extra-curricular/athletics programs and more.

We stand at a crossroads where the risks faced by universities and students alike are profound, and the consequences of inadequate government investment will be felt across generations.

By not investing in higher education at this critical moment, Ontario risks limiting the potential of students – the future leaders, innovators, and contributors to society. With employment rates at 90.4% six months after graduation for university students, it is clear this is not just an investment in higher education; it is an investment in our collective future.

With a shared commitment to the success of our students and the future of higher education, Ontario’s universities will continue to adapt and evolve to better serve students, and find even more new and innovative ways to drive greater operational efficiencies, as outlined in the sector’s efficiency update. With increased financial support, students can better remain as engaged partners in postsecondary and provide valuable insights, research and innovations both during their studies and beyond, building an advanced Ontario for all. 

By investing in the future of our students and institutions we can forge a path towards a stronger and more resilient postsecondary system that empowers students, fosters innovation and contributes to the advancement of our society.

The consequences of inaction are too great. The time for the government to step up and invest in our universities and students is now.”

Vivian Chiem, President, Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance and Steve Orsini, President and CEO, Council of Ontario Universities