On March 24, the Ontario Ministry of Finance released the Ontario 2021 budget, which focuses on the province’s action plan to tackle COVID-19 in the upcoming fiscal year, alongside mental health spending, tuition caps, and funding for postsecondary institutions. 

Funding for the postsecondary education sector decreased in the 2020–2021 year from the previous year, but it is expected to consistently increase for the next three years. 

The budget has faced criticism, including from the Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario (CFS–O), for a lack of adequate funding to post-secondary education.

Tuition caps, funding postsecondary institutions 

In the 2019–2020 academic year, the province implemented a 10 per cent decrease in tuition fees for Ontario students who were enrolled in a funding-eligible program at a publicly funded university or college. The government also froze tuition for the 2020–2021 year.

With the goal of increasing the number of people working in long-term care and fixing long-standing challenges, Ontario is also implementing a publicly-funded and tuition-free personal support workers (PSW) training program for 6,000 new students. Furthermore, approximately 2,200 current students will be eligible for a new $2,000 tuition grant, which is meant to help PSW students complete their studies. The students will also receive a stipend for the clinical placement area of their training. 

Lastly, the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) eligibility and funding will be expanded for micro-credential programs, which provide students with additional skills and qualifications.

In terms of funding postsecondary institutions, the provincial government will provide a base operating grant fund of $3.6 billion to Ontario’s 21 publicly funded universities in the 2021–2022 school year. Another $1.4 billion will be given to Ontario’s 24 publicly funded colleges. This funding will assist in several general operating expenses, such as program delivery, student services, and staffing. 

An additional $106.4 million is to be provided for colleges and universities to aid in addressing COVID-19 financial impacts in the 2020–2021 school year, as mentioned by Scott Clark, Press Secretary of the Minister of Colleges and Universities, in an email to The Varsity.

Clark also pointed out that $466 million will be given to publicly assisted postsecondary institutions over the course of three years, and this funding has already begun in 2020–2021. The funding is to help “address the need for critical maintenance, repairs, upgrades and renewals.”

Criticisms of postsecondary budget

In an email to The Varsity, Kayla Weiler, a national executive representative of the CFS–O, wrote that she believes the province and Doug Ford’s government have “missed the mark and left students behind.”

As an example, Weiler noted that the Ford government and Minister of Colleges and Universities Ross Romano had cut a significant amount from OSAP. 

“Students are already facing some of the highest tuition rates in the country and the lowest per-capita student funding,” Weiler wrote, pointing out that OSAP funding decreased from $10.5 billion in 2019–2020 to $10.3 billion in the 2020–2021 year. 

“Students shouldn’t have to choose between buying groceries and paying rent or attending a post-secondary institution,” Weiler concluded.

The Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) put out a statement on the budget on March 24, criticizing it for failing to support universities and pointing to the large role of university research during COVID-19. 

“Under the Ford government, per-student funding for universities will drop even further, as institutions will be expected to increase enrolment over the next three years without any additional money,” reads the statement.

The statement mentioned the provincial government’s choice to expand OSAP eligibility for students studying at Indigenous institutes and for micro-credential programs, but expressed regret that the move was not matched with additional OSAP funding. 

Mental health and substance use disorder spending

In the coming year, Ontario will be providing additional funding of $175 million to assist with mental health and substance use disorders, which is part of an overall 10-year investment of $3.8 billion. 

Alongside the funding, the plan has several mental health projects either in construction or in planning. In southwestern Ontario, there will be renovations to the Hôtel-Dieu Grace Healthcare’s Tayfour site to allow consolidation of mental health services. On the eastern side, the Carlington Community Health Centre will undergo construction to consolidate various programs into a new facility — one of which is the mental health program.

The province will also issue funding to help postsecondary students during the pandemic. An extra $7 million has been allocated in 2020–2021 to expand the accessibility of mental health and substance use disorder services. This $7 million funding builds on a bigger investment of $19.25 million broadcasted in October 2020. The funding is meant to help the needs of students through on-campus and virtual services.