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Commentary / Privatizing Ontario’s colleges: Part of the province’s neoliberal agenda

Commentary / Privatizing Ontario’s colleges: Part of the province’s neoliberal agenda

By Diane Meaghan

Ontario colleges have been chronically underfunded for decades. Provincial funding declined for operational expenditures from 75% in 1967 to 30% in 2020 (Statistics Canada, 2021), begging the question of whether colleges should be considered part of the public domain. Not only has the community component been substantially removed from the college mandate, but a more accurate description of Ontario colleges might currently classify them as private/public institutions.

Underfunding of Ontario colleges was recently highlighted by the provincial Auditor General, Bonnie Lysyk, in her annual report. She estimated that grant-based funding for 2020 was $1.6 billion while tuition fees, ancillary services and donations accounted for $5.1 billion. Of particular import was the fact that Ontario colleges rely on international student tuition to support domestic students, administrative costs and capital expenditures. Lysyk noted that in 2020 international students accounted for 30% of enrolment in Ontario colleges, but 68% of tuition fees of $1.7 million (Lysyk, 2021:20). The auditor general spoke of the risk of dependency of Ontario colleges on 62% of international students originating from a single country, India. Should a decrease occur from this source of funding, Lysyk maintained that it would leave Ontario colleges in a precarious financial position.

The Auditor General’s report speaks volumes to the priorities of the current provincial government, making it clear that colleges are not one of them. Large funding cuts are part of the most recent attempts by the Province to privatize colleges based on a business model. The corporatization of colleges has shifted the emphasis from intellectual, social and cultural functions to financial imperatives. Decreased funding and an increase in student enrolment created a financial crisis for colleges which were compelled to seek funding from sources other than the provincial government.

Privatization tactics are not limited to post-secondary institutions, nor to COVID-19: prior to the pandemic, neoliberal restructuring resulted in a significant increase in investments of elearning projects in Ontario colleges, in part from the governmental interest in cost reduction. In 2019 NDP Education Critic, Marit Stiles, spoke about the provincial government’s fascination with on-line learning, and the plan to make four on-line, secondary, school courses mandatory and to remove 10,000 public school teachers from the classrooms. The then Education Minister, Lisa Thompson, remarked that “Ontario is already leading the way (with) on-line a need to embrace technology for good.” (Blog Toronto, March, 2019).

Similarly, the utilization of contingent faculty in Ontario colleges is another example of privatization by stealth during the past few decades. Neoliberalism has resulted in contingent faculty being placed at the bottom of a highly stratified workforce in colleges. Part time, partial load and sessional faculty are the three groups of adjuncts who comprise the faculty teaching in Ontario colleges. Although the current government did not initiate the practice of replacing full-time with contingent faculty, neither has it taken substantial steps to ameliorate the problem. It is estimated that currently the ratio of full-time to contingent faculty is approximately 1:4 in large, urban colleges (Muzzin and Meaghan, 2019).

Representing 15,000 professors at 24 Ontario colleges, together with counselors, librarians and instructors, members of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), voted in March 2022 to engage in strike action and then settlement through arbitration in order to draw attention to a number of grievances. Prime among their concerns were issues of unpaid overtime, uncompensated work and job security of partial-load faculty. According to JP Hornick, then the Chair of the Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology (CAAT) bargaining team, during the past five years the college system has benefited from these trends with profits of $1.65 billion (Akrit and Chong, 2021). Organizational changes have resulted in this precarious segment of the academic workforce being utilized to alleviate declining revenues resulting from government underfunding.

Finally, although Ontario’s pre-election budget appears to favour developers, particularly those who build highways, there is the promise of some additional spending for colleges (amount yet unspecified), due to the precarious nature of international students who are able to support themselves in Canada while attending college. There have been a number of reports from Ontario colleges concerning international students being unable to find employment or working at jobs that pay less than minimum wage, leaving them economically stranded and unable to fully turn their attention to their studies.

Diane Meaghan Ph.D. is a Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies (RET) at Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology.The original version of this commentary first appeared in the Summer/Fall 2022 issue of The Monitor.


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