Ontario universities’ financial shenanigans are perfect camouflage | Martin Regg Cohn

University funding has been a matter of furious contention in Ontario for several decades now, and I’ve hardly avoided the subject over the years. Given the recent provincial budget surpluses, the politicians should realise they can use the opportunity now to re-balance the system. After all, they promised to do that last year; they’ve known about the shortfall ever since. But instead of fixing the problem, they are putting off any serious discussion of changes until after an election, whenever that may be.

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What, then, is to be done about growing class sizes and a second-rate public education? The short answer is: NOTHING. Rather than fix the problem, universities across the province are playing their students for fools by refusing to close courses and open classrooms.

As students and parents, we are routinely shown tuition, research-funding and internal-debt projections by our universities as if they were sensible projections for our own finances. It is, of course, a smoke screen: these figures have never been subject to close scrutiny and are inflated in every possible way. Students assume this opacity holds true for our universities’ budgets. But it’s just as well, if we know nothing about their thinking and their intentions.

Our universities use this opacity as a cover for their massive financial gamble: they take big provincial subsidies, then continue to raise tuition and increase internal-debt. At the same time, they scramble to hide these surpluses. They know the fact that they are making huge profits while claiming to be at a loss, but can’t do anything about it because not enough students know about their activities.

So, in the absence of any real knowledge about their finances and their activities, what are they getting out of all this? With the advent of the first massive cuts to university funding, we learned that these universities keep tuition artificially low, then use the implied returns to justify ever-more-generous financial packages to their administrators and top staff. They stoke class warfare by providing ever-harsher loans that graduate students are expected to pay off with income equal to 50% of their former salaries for each year of their education, with the subsidy amount becoming higher and higher. Then there’s the vaunted “quality-assurance” scheme that “honours” these “expenditures” with little more than an airtight analysis of how much food and laundry students must send each other during terms off.

Martin Regg Cohn. Photograph: Andrei Kobarev/VCG via Getty Images

Shouldn’t a university whose primary “aim” is education perform a more competent and transparent accounting of its profits than a university whose principal aim is financial stability? It’s almost as if the folks in charge of Ontario’s universities have accidentally stumbled into a powerful incentive to keep their faculties small and their classes short. In practice, we see daily in our universities the conflict between industry’s unalloyed desire for ever-greater profits and their political masters’ desire to maintain cheap student labour. Instead of swallowing their slights, we should demand that universities make transparent their activities. If it’s necessary for them to take millions in tax subsidies and create ever-greater debts, then they should clearly publish their methods and findings about those books and workshops. That would be the kind of transparency that is good for universities and good for all students.

More importantly, if the not-in-my-backyard crowd wants to prevent anything from happening in the future, they should do so by electing the candidates they themselves actually understand. Nobody speaks for our universities and their goals better than their own students. They should use their vote to force the hard questions about what their money is being spent on, what their actions are and how the results are playing out.

That’s what they’re not doing, so it’s time for them to stop acting like impotent puppets on the stage of our universities’ playing field.

M (a) is a doctoral student at the University of Toronto. R is a PhD student at Toronto and home-schooled M and r are undergraduates.

• Martin Regg Cohn is a professor of political science at Western University and author of The Misrepresentation of Public Universities.

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