Farzeen Foda

Senior News Editor

 

“We see no reason why Ontario cannot have the best public services in the world – with the proviso that they must come at a cost Ontarians can afford,” said a report from the Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services, released on Feb. 15.

The report outlines recommendations for the reallocation of provincial funding in numerous public service domains – including post-secondary education – in an effort to revitalize Ontario’s economic prospects without increasing taxes.

The plan suggests a systematic reduction in program spending while avoiding the privatization of healthcare and education. The report clearly indicates the need to invest in those domains that can bring about future gains.

One such domain is post-secondary education, in which five key objectives were outlined: it must educate an increasing proportion of the population, contribute to equality in social and economic outcomes, provide a foundation for lifelong learning, foster innovation and efficiently deliver quality education.

Quality of post-secondary education has seen a decline across the Province as a result of well-recognized factors, including a greater number of sessional instructors, larger class sizes and reduced student-professor interaction.

Additionally, Ontario currently supports a system with the lowest per-student grant funding in Canada, paving the way for increases in tuition that exceed the inflation rate.

A tuition-freeze as a solution has not been identified to be in the best interests of students, as it would likely diminish the university experience and the quality of education.

The report recommends a maximum of 1.5 per cent annual increase in post-secondary education funding. With respect to tuition increases, the report supports the current five per cent ceiling on tuition increases, but contends that individual institutions hold the responsibility of allocating funding to their programs within the ceiling.

A mere 1.5 per cent increase in funding for post-secondary education is not expected to keep pace with the increasing demand for higher education or inflation, thus calling on individual institutions to “find efficiencies to preserve, if not enhance quality.”

A wide-spread concern for post-secondary students is the lack of dedication to education on the part of professors.

“I have, with some professors, felt like they would much rather be anywhere else except in front of the classroom talking to us,” said Ankita Dubey, a fourth-year Psychology student at McMaster.

The report calls for a revision to research funding structures and more rewards and incentives for effective teaching practices. A shift in favour of research spread across the province between 1997 and 2003, when funding for research tripled. This ultimately came at a cost to the quality of education as educators shifted focus to research in the hopes of flagging their institution as “world-class research centres.”

With reallocation of resources, opportunities for students to engage in more self-learning endeavours such as internships, independent study, experiential learning and opportunities to study abroad can be expanded.

Increasingly, colleges and universities are working in collaboration, thus the report recommends that students with a minimum of two years of college completed with a minimum academic standing, should be able to transfer into the university system. Further, no new post-secondary programs shall be initiated without a compelling justification.

While the report allots an insufficient increase in post-secondary funding of 1.5 per cent, it suggests that, if the Province cannot stay within this cap on annual growth, the government must consider sacrificing the recent Ontario Tuition Grant.

Don Drummond, the chair of the Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services, is currently a Matthews Fellow in Global Public Policy at Queen’s University. Previously, he worked for the federal Department of Finance and TD Economics, holding increasingly prestigious positions, conducting analyses of policies influencing economic performance.

The comprehensive review came as a necessity after the Ontario government’s 2010-11 deficit far exceeded that of any other province, reaching 23 per cent of provincial GDP. Subsequent projections concluded that if current economic practices continue, the province could see its deficit more than double by 2017-18, reaching nearly 51 per cent of the province’s GDP.

The revised plan, called “Our Preferred Scenario,” estimates a deficit of approximately 37 per cent of provincial GDP in 2017-18. Nevertheless, the report contends that Ontario’s fiscal situation is far from desperate, though early intervention can mitigate the possibility of reaching the economic crises seen in other countries in recent years.

“Decisive, firm and early action is required to get off this slippery, and ultimately destructive slope,” Drummond stated in his opening letter to Premier Dalton McGuinty and Ontario’s finance minister Dwight Duncan.

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