What the provincial budget means to Western
May 11 was a great day for Western and indeed for all Ontario universities and colleges, as the Province committed to the largest multi-year public investment in postsecondary education in 40 years. We owe an enormous debt to Bob Rae and his Advisory Panel; to our Minister, Mary Anne Chambers; and to Premier Dalton McGuinty and his cabinet. And we at Western can take pride in our contribution to the Rae Report and the Budget through the efforts of faculty, staff, students and alumni.
On Budget day Ryan Dunn, President of the USC, and I were seated in the Visitor’s Gallery of the Legislature. A half hour earlier, as we assembled in the lobby, I was able to speak with Bob Rae and thank him again for his efforts. At 4 p.m. the MPPs took their seats. We waved to several London area MPPs, including Minister Chris Bentley, Khalil Ramal, and Deb Matthews. Deb gave us the thumbs up, so we knew it would be
a good Budget.
And it was! Right off the top, the Finance Minister, Greg Sorbara, announced a $6.2-billion investment in postsecondary education over the next five years. Those in the gallery, who were mainly from the education sector, began to applaud. A dour faced usher informed us grimly that applause was not permitted in the galleries, but we carried on anyway. I suspect it was a proud moment for Sorbara, who served as Minister of Colleges and Universities from 1985 to 1987 and knows our sector well. I was seated so that I could see Deb Matthews clearly, and I gave her the thumbs up. We were off to a great Budget speech.
Two days after the Budget, the Premier gave a moving speech at Ryerson University before a group of university and college presidents and students. He spoke of the importance of postsecondary education to individuals and to society. He said education is “the foundation for an engaged citizenry and a strong democracy. It enriches the enjoyment of our lives—something my father, a professor of romantic poetry, impressed upon me. And it is essential to our economic success.”
He also said it was education that brought him into politics: “This is why I’m Premier, why I ran for office, why I’m in public life. It’s why I spent six years in Opposition, travelling from town to town in the back of a van, to give the same speech again and again—to earn this opportunity, to make this difference, on this issue: the education and skills of our people.”
The $6.2-billion commitment over the next five years sends a clear signal that postsecondary education is now a top priority in Ontario. For the past two decades, as real university funding per student fell year after year, universities and our many advocates across the province have been strenuously making the case for higher education. Our message has finally been heard. This Budget marks a turning point for universities and colleges, and we should celebrate it.
I believe Western’s voice has been among the strongest of those proposing a renewed investment in higher education. Perhaps the most important of our efforts was the unity of our response to last fall’s review of postsecondary education led by former Ontario premier Bob Rae. Western faculty, staff, students, alumni and administration came together as a whole to share our collective thoughts with Mr. Rae’s panel, the only Ontario university to achieve such a consensus.
I wish to thank my colleagues on the Campus Council for their wisdom and solidarity. More than one member of Mr. Rae’s Advisory Council and its staff told me they were greatly impressed with our ability to make a joint submission, which focused on achievable resources and goals. Finance Minister Greg Sorbara highlighted the tremendous insight the Rae Report provided, and the items addressed in this historic Budget—with regard to access, quality, and accountability—follow in significant ways the recommendations of our Campus Council.
Western’s share of the $683 million earmarked for 2005-06 will help us immediately in strengthening our ability to provide the best student experience among Canada’s leading research-intensive universities. It will enable us to hire more faculty and staff members, and to reduce student-faculty and student-staff ratios that have risen to unacceptable levels over the past two decades. It will provide us the resources to pursue our ambitious graduate enrolment targets. And it will increase the student financial assistance available to help ensure all eligible students can afford a university education.
We need to celebrate, and then get back to work. Advocating for increased investment in postsecondary education has just begun. The Provincial Budget focuses on operating funds and student assistance, the top priorities of our Campus Council. The Council also underlined the need for more resources for capital construction and renovation and for research. Bob Rae’s report called for an investment in each of the next ten years of up to $200 million a year for facility renewal and $300 million for new facilities and equipment; in particular, the report underlined the needs for capital if we are to meet the needed expansion in graduate education.
The Provincial Budget refers to “providing capital support to ensure medical schools and graduate departments can accommodate the increased number of students,” without specifying funding levels. Universities will also have access to the Ontario Strategic Infrastructure Financing Authority, but it is not clear if the Authority’s borrowing conditions will be greatly different from what Western already can obtain from banks.
With regard to research funding, a Research Council of Ontario will advise on research priorities and allocate funding based on these priorities. Here our advocacy will be twofold: we need to be sure there is a continuing commitment to basic, fundamental research (as Mr. Rae called for), and we need to be sure the funding of research remains strong in all disciplinary areas, including the humanities and social sciences. Capital and research will be central parts of our advocacy with the Province in the months ahead.
And why is investing in universities important? A recent report from the Task Force on Competitiveness, Productivity and Economic Progress indicates Ontario lags considerably behind other leading North American jurisdictions when it comes to productivity and prosperity. In fact, Ontario’s gross domestic product ranks 13th among 16 peer states and provinces with populations of six million or greater. This GDP gap translates to approximately $3,000 per citizen, or $38 billion in total.
The Task Force report attributes approximately one-third of this gap, or $13 billion per year, to our shortfall in educating people with graduate degrees, relative to levels seen in the US. With Ontario universities lagging behind our American peer institutions in per-student funding by 40 per cent, our ability to produce advanced-degree graduates at levels on par with the US will continue to be hampered. I believe the findings of this report figured prominently in the government’s thinking as it put together the postsecondary section of the Budget.
To close the prosperity and competitiveness gap, and ultimately improve our quality of life, there is no better investment than ensuring higher levels of education for our citizens. Our challenge now is to ensure we make the most of the gains we have earned and to continue demonstrating the value of a Western education. In return for the Province’s bold investment and renewed vote of confidence, we will be held to higher degrees of accountability and to higher expectations of quality in areas such as degree completion, student-faculty interaction, student engagement in their programs, and access to essential student services.
At Western, faculty, staff, students and alumni have proven time and again their ability to rise to a challenge, through their commitment to excellence in teaching, research and service. Last week’s Budget is in part a tribute to your efforts and the important contributions you make collectively as a campus community. Congratulations.
Paul Davenport, President and Vice-Chancellor
The University of Western Ontario
To share your views please reply to Paul.Davenport@uwo.ca
This page was last updated on
May 16, 2005
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