As universities across Ontario report mounting debt and forced corner-cutting, a provincially-commissioned report on postsecondary education institutions in Ontario is recommending that the province end its four-year-long domestic tuition freeze and hike tuition by five per cent for the 2024–2025 academic year. It also recommends that the Ontario government — whose funding to postsecondary institutions per student is 57 per cent less than Canada’s provincial average — increase its funding by 10 per cent.

The panel also suggests allowing further tuition increases for professional degree programs, as well as high-demand programs, such as engineering, where program graduates’ earnings are higher on average.

The province cut domestic tuition by 10 per cent for the 2019–2020 academic year, announcing it was doing so to ensure more affordability in postsecondary education. Ontario has since extended this tuition freeze multiple times, often citing financial concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and tuition fees have remained the same. However, the panel called this freeze a “significant threat to the financial sustainability of a major part of the province’s postsecondary sector,” echoing a 2022 report from Ontario’s Auditor General.

The Ontario government first commissioned the group that wrote this report, called the Blue Ribbon Panel, in March 2023. According to the government’s website, its purpose is to “[keep] the postsecondary education sector financially stable and focused on providing the best student experience possible.” Meanwhile, the head of a postsecondary consulting firm, in a CBC News article, argued that the government’s actual motivation for commissioning the panel was to churn out justifications for ending the tuition freeze — and is therefore unlikely to implement the panel’s recommended increase in public funding.

Special exemptions recommended for U of T

“I encourage the province to consider treating the University of Toronto differently from other Ontario universities,” wrote panel chair Alan Harrison in a letter attached to the report. He noted that the Times Higher Education World University Rankings placed U of T as 18th in the world and provides more student aid than the average level of aid other universities provide. He also noted that, unlike some other Ontario universities, U of T has not been admitting numbers of domestic students beyond the level of funding it has to facilitate.

Citing these factors, Harrison recommended that U of T be exempted from tuition regulation altogether, even beyond the ongoing freeze. Provincial regulation has historically capped year-over-year tuition increases for domestic students at three to five per cent — but removing those regulations would allow U of T to determine its own tuition fees.

“We’re very pleased with the Blue Ribbon Panel,” said Vice President and Provost Cheryl Regehr at the Governing Council’s latest Business Board meeting on November 22, 2023, highlighting Harrison’s acknowledgement of U of T’s high ranking. However, Regehr stated that “any changes to tuition levels at U of T would be considered hand in hand with our commitment to offering the most generous access programs in the province.”

Regehr also noted that the administration does not know whether Ontario will implement the panel’s recommendations in the first place, nor do they have a timeline for when that implementation would begin.

Tuition hikes amid Toronto’s cost of living crisis

As students navigate Toronto’s cost of living crisis, tuition hikes may end up hurting students more than helping universities. “Ontario universities are absolutely broadly underfunded, but to imply that U of T itself is short on funding isn’t entirely accurate.” wrote Aidan Thompson, the University of Toronto Students’ Union vice president, public and university affairs, in an email to The Varsity

“Admin doesn’t really have a plan for what to do with the additional funding [from increased tuition rates], [and] is wasting current funding on inefficiencies,” claimed Thompson. Ontario Colleges and Universities Minister Jill Dunlop paralleled these views in her comments on the report’s recommendation, stating that the province won’t allow tuition hikes until it has established that colleges and universities are to the best of their abilities operating efficiently.

In a submission to the Blue Ribbon Panel, U of T stated that it needs additional funding to “advance its academic and research missions.” U of T specifically pointed to meeting student demand for academic programs, as well as maintaining a competitive advantage when it comes to leading research and start-up developments.

“Chances are the money would be squandered by academic divisions on niche projects (like the $116M ‘Academic Tower’ project at Bloor and Devonshire for office space and a luxury lounge for the Rotman Executive program), rather than being invested in something like Student Housing or really any other student supports,” argued Thompson. The Academic Wood Tower aims to be Canada’s tallest academic timber building, and it plans to house the Rotman School of Management, the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy in the Faculty of Arts and Science and the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education.

A spokesperson for the university stated that Thompson’s criticism fundamentally misunderstands provincial funding. “Provincial regulations do not allow tuition fees nor provincial operating grants to be used for anything other than core academic and research activities. Student housing and many other students supports fall outside these categories,” they wrote to The Varsity.

The Ontario Operating Funds Distribution Manual — a 2010 document that still governs many aspects of Ontario universities’ fee distribution abilities — describes how universities can use non-targeted grants by the provincial government. It declares universities can use these grants for any of operating expenditures — except for expenditures in a few specific categories that include both student aid and capital projects. Capital projects refer to projects such as real estate investments and construction of new campus buildings. The term includes projects like the Academic Wood Tower.

Ontario government funding woes

Meanwhile, on January 9, Queen’s University student newspaper the Queen’s Journal quoted Provost Matthew Evans during a town hall meeting as worried about Queen’s very survival because of its precarious current financial position. “Unless we sort this out, we will go under,” he said.

“The best option by far is for the Provincial government to budget for an operational funding increase that actually meets the needs of Ontario’s Universities,” wrote Thompson.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Ontario office released a report last month regarding the perilous state of public university funding in Ontario, calling on the provincial government to double its current funding — bringing postsecondary funding to the average level of other provinces. Funding cuts in Ontario in recent years have resulted in domestic students paying 24 per cent higher tuition fees in comparison to the remaining Canadian average.

Thompson further notes that instituting the tuition hike as a way of “catching up” with inflation should be a policy of last resort after universities have exhausted all other cost-cutting measures that do not materially impact the student experience — which he disputes that U of T has attempted.

U of T President Meric Gertler also highlighted U of T’s push for greater federal and provincial government funding at U of T’s October 26 Governing Council meeting.

Graduate student tuition raises

“We believe that burdening students with additional financial strain is not conducive to fostering a positive and inclusive learning environment,” wrote Jady Liang, University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union interim vice president external, in an email to The Varsity.

Liang noted that graduate students have been facing “significant issues” with their base funding packages, which are a graduate unit’s funding commitment for certain eligible students — they encompass employment income for teaching or research assistants, research stipends, and fellowships, and the cost of tuition and student fees.

“The tuition increases may be counterbalanced with graduate funding, but any increase has an impact on the struggles graduate students face,” Liang wrote.

“The solution is obvious — increased government funding,” Liang wrote. “It is crucial to highlight that the funding from the government for postsecondary education has remained stagnant for more than 10 years.”

Editor’s note (February 3): This article’s headline previously indicated that the Blue Ribbon Panel as a whole had advocated for deregulating U of T tuition, when in fact it was the panel’s chair who argued for this. The article also mistakenly attributed the start of the tuition freeze to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

These mistakes have been addressed, and the article has been updated to include comment from U of T on remarks by Aiden Thompson about the university’s spending, and context from the Ontario Operating Funds Distribution Manual on how universities are allowed to use provincial funding. The Varsity regrets these errors.