March 19, 2004  
Volume 97, Issue 89  

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Universities attack poor gov’t spending

By Anton Vidgen
Gazette Staff

A report criticizing the previous Ontario government of short-changing post-secondary education comes on the heels of a separate advertising campaign launched by a university lobby group to convince Ontarians of the need for more public funding of the public institutions.

The Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations released a report yesterday blaming the Conservative governments of former premiers Mike Harris and Ernie Eves for the decline of quality, opportunity and accessibility of Ontario universities.

“We know that Ontario universities rank 10th — and dead last — in per capita funding,” said Michael Doucet, the report’s author and a geography professor at Ryerson University.

The report was based on the aggregate drop of Ontario institutions as reflected in the annual Maclean’s rankings, he said. Though he admitted the rankings were slightly flawed, Doucet said they do give a relatively accurate representation of the overall state of the province’s post-secondary education system.

Doucet said he hopes the report will spur the current Liberal government into raising Ontario’s funding status to at least that of the Canadian average. “I would like to see us moving quite smartly towards that goal within this government’s mandate,” he said. “At this juncture, I remain positive on the basis of the promises [Premier Dalton McGuinty] made to the electorate.”

A $500,000 public awareness campaign organized by the Council of Ontario Universities has been running radio and newspaper advertisements since last Thursday to show the desperate situation universities find themselves in, said COU President Ian Clark.

In arguing for more funding to improve Ontario’s national and international standing, Clark said that financing quality — which he defined as a low faculty-student ratio, a wide array of courses and other indicators — must not compromise accessibility. “We’re not recognizing a trade-off. We’re committed to accessibility,” he said.

The campaign comes as the Ontario government prepares to hold province-wide budget consultations. The timing is not coincidental, Clark said, adding he hopes the public will support COU in demanding more university funding.

But Benjamin Singer, a Western professor emeritus of sociology, said the claims for additional funding need to be better justified. “To ask for the taxpayers to dig into their pockets for more money, there should [be] certainty that the money is going to be spent in a rational way,” he said. “That does not include expanding the course offerings to include more courses that are thin in academic merit.”

Singer also said that some faculty members reap unjustifiably high salaries, especially in the social sciences. Faculty salaries are typically one of the largest components of a university’s budget. “That could be spent on students’ needs instead,” he said.

As for the awareness campaign, Singer added that the public needs to be fully informed of the fiscal policies of universities. “Overall, it’s great to have more money for universities,” he said, but added the amounts and allocations need to be examined more closely.

The fact that COU is taking the lead is a heartening change from individual university-driven campaigns, said Dave Ford, University Students’ Council VP-education. “The unity is welcome,” he said. “It can only make the case stronger.”



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