The Ontario government announced on April 30 that it will extend last year’s domestic tuition freeze into the 2021–2022 academic year. According to the government, the freeze is meant to help guarantee financial stability for Ontario families in response to the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In an email to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson acknowledged that the university had anticipated the move and adjusted its budget accordingly. They also noted that maintaining a tuition freeze in the long term would not be sustainable, especially with the increased costs of digital infrastructure that accompany online learning.
The initial tuition freeze came one year after the province reduced domestic tuition by 10 per cent in an effort to make education more affordable. However, the move has been commended by the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), with executives explaining that it fails as a long-term solution to rising tuition costs and the inaccessibility of education.
Government reasoning and university response
Through the tuition freeze, the Ontario government aims to help students receive affordable postsecondary education. The province hopes this will address problems created by the pandemic, such as rising student unemployment rates.
In an email to The Varsity, Scott Clark, press secretary at the Ministry of Colleges and Universities, noted that the provincial government has implemented several other measures to support students. These measures include temporarily suspending student loan payments through the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) and allocating an extra $10.25 million to mental health supports.
In addition, the government started Ontario’s first micro-credentials strategy, which offers programs through colleges, universities, and the Indigenous Institutes that take less time to complete than regular accredited programs and that provide participants with the skills they need for employment. The government has also agreed to delay its outcomes-based funding plan for two years.
The freeze will result in a $26 million decrease in the university’s revenue when compared to its expected revenue under the province’s previous fee framework. A U of T spokesperson wrote in an email that the university has planned for the budget shortfall and has accordingly adjusted to maintain its teaching and research standards.
The university has been dealing with a larger pattern of decreased funding for postsecondary education from the Ontario government over the last several years. Because of this, they need alternative sources of funding, such as increasing international tuition. The extension of the domestic tuition freeze is reflected in U of T’s fee schedule for the 2021-2022 academic year, which also includes an increase in international tuition.
The spokesperson added that given “the long-term underfunding of the [education] sector, these cuts are not sustainable.” The pandemic has led to significant cost increases for the university, since it has had to make changes to instructional design, develop IT systems for online course delivery, and consider environmental health and safety concerns for the safe operation of research labs and workplaces.
The impact of the freeze on U of T’s budget has been alleviated by using the Access Programs University Fund to provide financial support to divisions that were disproportionately impacted by the tuition decrease in 2019-2020 and later tuition freezes.
Impact on students
In an email to The Varsity, UTSU executives noted that beyond the tuition freeze, the government should take other measures to help students, including increasing the OSAP grant-to-loan ratio, extending the grace period for loans, increasing operating grants to schools, and reinstating the tuition cap that expired in 2018.
Executives were also concerned that international students may see an unfair increase in tuition as a result of the domestic tuition freeze.
In an email to The Varsity, Anna Carneiro and Luise Hellwing, coordinators for the International Students’ Advocacy Network (ISAN), wrote that many of the issues that the tuition freeze addresses with regards to domestic students — such as lack of employment — have hit international students even harder. The number of hours an international student would need to work to pay for tuition is up to nine times greater than the equivalent number for domestic students.
ISAN stated that the university could help international students immediately by providing more financial assistance, which would alleviate financial struggles that may otherwise force students to defer their studies and return home.