Universities spared worst of budget cuts

The greatly anticipated, almost dreaded, provincial budget, announced Tuesday by Ontario’s finance minister Dwight Duncan, came with what he called responsible and fair cuts – most sparing post-secondary institutions.

Modest cuts to capital funding, medical school training and study-abroad scholarships haven’t generated as much concern as plans to change the current pension plan structure at some Ontario universities.

Duncan’s proposal to change contribution levels to pension plans and revamp the way plans are structured, pooling and centrally administering benefits to increase efficiency, hasn’t been well-received. But that might not be as big an issue at Western.

“As it pertains to pensions, in Western’s case the plan is a defined-contribution plan so quite different than our peers, the majority of whom have defined-benefit pension plans,” explained Gitta Kulczycki, vice-president (resources and operations). “Most of the references in the budget are specifically for defined benefit pension plans, so while not 100 per cent clear in all aspects, it does suggest our Western pension plans are not impacted.”

The province has also committed a funding increase of 1.9 per cent to Ontario universities, a modest improvement from February’s Drummond Report.

On the Western front, the university is sympathetic to the proposed changes, said Janice Deakin, provost and vice-president (academic).

“Western understands the tough choices that the government has had to make to address the challenging fiscal environment in Ontario,” she said, noting some of the proposed changes, while they may affect the university, won’t take away from the Western Experience and the school’s strengths in academics and innovation.

“We are examining the impact of a number of measures proposed in the Ontario budget as they relate to the post-secondary sector. While we continue look for efficiencies across our operations and work on innovations in program design and delivery, we remain committed to offering an educational experience for our students that is second to none. Western will continue to generate new ideas, technologies and discoveries needed to help drive the economy in Ontario and Canada,” she added.

Kulczycki agreed by adding “the government is faced with difficult choices. In that context it is worth noting the ongoing commitment to student enrolment growth, recognizing that an educated citizenry will drive a more prosperous economy.”

The Council of Ontario Universities (COU) issued a statement echoing Deakin and Kulczycki, mainly noting the organization’s support for the province’s “tough budget choices.”

“Universities are major contributors to the province’s economic well-being through the generation of ideas, technologies and discoveries as well as the education of highly skilled graduates who are vital to the workforce of today and tomorrow,” said Alastair Summerlee, COU chair and president of the University of Guelph.

In order to find the efficiencies Deakin and Summerlee speak of, universities will work closely with Glen Murray, Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, the statement said.

COU also noted that Ontario’s universities, accommodating roughly 150,000 new students in the past decade with the lowest per-student funding in the country, have nevertheless made significant advancements in productivity. Degree completion rates and the number of graduates entering the workforce reflect the fact that Ontario’s universities are doing something right; 91.7 per cent of university students are employed within six months of graduation and 93.8 percent find work within two years, according to COU.

“Ontario’s 21 universities also continue to make a significant economic contribution to the 35 communities in which they operate by providing talented workers for the local economy and through research efforts that impact the region, the province, the nation and indeed the world,” said Bonnie Patterson, COU’s president and CEO.

The provincial government faced a challenge in all categories when generating the budget. Reducing costs while funding a new 30 per cent tuition grant for more than 300,000 undergraduate students in Ontario presented a difficulty in the category of post-secondary education.