This story is part of Learning Curve, a HuffPost Canada series that explores the challenges and opportunities for students, faculty and post-secondary institutions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Researchers at Dalhousie University are testing COVID-19 antibodies in chickens.
An associate professor from the University of Alberta is joining forces with Canadian Blood Services to study how many Canadians have already had the virus.
Researchers at McMaster University and the University of Toronto made headlines early in Canada’s pandemic response by isolating the virus.
Experts are quick to point out that our post-secondary institutions are critical to Canada’s ongoing COVID-19 response and recovery — but with many facing uncertain enrolment numbers, especially for international students whose tuition is a big source of income for some schools, there are questions about how well-equipped colleges and universities are to fulfil their role in the recovery, let alone meet the needs of students in the fall.
Post-secondary institutions in Ontario, Alberta and Manitoba faced drastic cuts and funding changes from their conservative provincial governments before the pandemic, and faculty association leaders told HuffPost Canada the pandemic has made the situation even worse.
Christine Trauttmansdorff is the vice-president of government relations and Canadian partnerships at Colleges and Institutes Canada.
“We’ve been hearing repeatedly over the last few months from our members and our presidents about how they’re trying to [deal with the financial uncertainty] and their budgets are really in trouble, like deep, deep, deep trouble,” she told HuffPost.
While colleges are trying to be smart about their budgets, the cost of transitioning to an online delivery model is “enormous,” she said.
In addition to asking the federal government for colleges and universities to be included in the emergency wage subsidy, Trauttmansdorff said Colleges and Institutes Canada has also asked to see investments in digital infrastructure so colleges can create shared resources for online teaching.
“[Going back to school] is against the backdrop of considerable uncertainty ...”
Universities Canada president Paul Davidson echoed Trauttmansdorff’s concerns.
“Every university is working under a considerable degree of uncertainty, whether it’s the degree of provincial funding, the degree of international student enrolment, and also looking at the investments that need to be made to continue to deliver high-quality educational experience,” he said.
Universities are also repurposing residence buildings, labs and food services to be compliant with COVID-19 restrictions and precautions, which will add extra costs, he said.
“This is all getting ready for what we hope will be a very successful September,” Davidson said. “But it is against the backdrop of considerable uncertainty.”
‘Eroding’ government support in Ontario
In January 2019, Ontario’s Doug Ford government introduced sweeping changes to post-secondary funding, including a 10 per cent tuition decrease for domestic students that amounted to millions of dollars in base funding lost for most schools.
The province also announced a big change to the way it gives funding to universities: It planned to make up to 60 per cent of the funding eventually tied to performance-based metrics, like graduate employment earnings. Ontario delayed the implementation of those new metrics in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, but will now finalize the agreements by the end of the summer. The earliest they could come into effect is the 2021-22 year, according to ministry spokesperson Ciara Byrne.
The province later said it would delay activation of performance-based funding “for up to two years to provide financial stability and predictability to Ontario’s publicly funded colleges and universities.”
One expert previously told HuffPost that measuring a university’s performance by these performance-based metrics doesn’t make sense given the pandemic’s impact on the economy and said they ultimately distort the purpose of universities by making them akin to job training centres. Some also say the metrics could hinder marginalized students’ access to education if institutions admit students they believe have the best chance of being employed after graduating.
“Families and students make great sacrifices in their pursuit of post-secondary education, and we want to ensure that post-secondary institutions are accountable for the quality of education they provide these students,” Byrne said.
Ross Romano, Ontario’s minister of colleges and universities, said at a June press conference that the province’s post-secondary institutions “are businesses at the end of the day” that are not immune to the challenges stemming from the pandemic, including layoffs.
“Government support for post-secondary education has been gradually eroding for many years, at least in Ontario,” University of Western Ontario Faculty Association president Beth MacDougall-Shackleton told HuffPost.
MacDougall-Shackleton said the pandemic has exposed two big problems in the way that universities operate: They are over-reliant on funding from international student tuition, some to the point of exploitation, and are also over-reliant on sessional or contract lecturers.
Athena Vethanayagam, a spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Colleges and Universities, said the government has given $25 million to publicly funded colleges, universities and Indigenous institutions and will consult to develop further strategies and make use of existing economic opportunities.
The way the province transfers funds to colleges and universities — based on a range compared to their historical enrolment — will ensure that institutions receive stable funding despite any atypical enrolment numbers caused by the pandemic, Vethanayagam said.
“Universities were struggling with financial pressures before the pandemic ...”
Contract lecturer positions may be some of the first to go as institutions face funding squeezes.
Warren “Smokey” Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, said over half the union’s members are in part-time positions with no job security, in a May letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ford and Romano.
“Universities were struggling with financial pressures before the pandemic,” Thomas wrote. “Years of underfunding and an ever-growing reliance on revenues from tuition fees, have resulted in a majority of the workforce being precarious.”
$110 million in cuts at University of Alberta
Alberta’s Jason Kenney government also announced a shift to performance-based funding in January, but it was similarly put off because of the pandemic. Over the next three years, the province plans to cut 20 per cent from the funding it provides to post-secondary institutions.
In a statement to HuffPost, a spokesperson for Alberta’s Ministry of Advanced Education said Alberta has one of the most expensive post-secondary systems in Canada, and spending less per student could save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
“Surely university administration can look at its own expenses to find savings,” spokesperson Laurie Chandler said.
Among the province’s infrastructure investments made during the pandemic, it will invest $100 million in capital maintenance and renewal funding for universities, Chandler added.
Ricardo Acuña, president of the Association of Academic Staff at the University of Alberta, said the university has faced a “double whammy” with the existing cuts and the uncertainty from the pandemic.
The university has had to cut $110.3 million in the last two years, as a result of cuts in both the government’s 2019 and 2020 budgets. It also has a goal of reducing expenses by $120 million per year within the next two years.
“At the same time, [the university] is trying to deal with the government’s rapidly changing signal about what’s happening with performance-based measurements and indicators, with government-based spending limits, and trying to deal with the financial impacts of the pandemic,” Acuña told HuffPost.
The province plans to resume performance-based funding in the 2021-22 year.
In the 2019-20 year, 400 positions were cut, and 635 more are planned for the upcoming fiscal year. The university also plans to “drastically reduce and consolidate” some faculties, and get rid of some buildings to save on maintenance costs, Acuña said.
A university spokesperson confirmed the university is evaluating its space needs and that this will likely lead to the closure of some buildings, but no decisions have been made right now. The spokesperson also confirmed the university will be conducting an academic restructuring process that will likely see a reduction in the total number of faculties through consolidation, though, again, no decisions have been made yet.
While the university hasn’t been clear about potential further job losses, “you can’t take $120 million out of a budget in two years and not have more job losses,” Acuña said.
Because of the lack of details on how the cuts will be further implemented, Acuña said it’s too early to say whether student services like counselling or programs/classes will be affected.
“Let's provide a high-quality liberal education that ... has its roots [in] a kind of higher-level understanding of what advanced education means”
The province of Alberta is also embarking on a larger review of the post-secondary sector, which Acuña said could result in the closure or consolidation of some colleges or universities. Chandler, the ministry spokesperson, said the review “will renew the adult learning system’s focus on providing the education, skills and training the province needs to meet labour market demands and help Albertans get back to work.”
Acuña said he’s concerned with the rise of the seemingly “corporatized” approach to education that some provincial governments and university administrators have promoted. While university education should have the goal of preparing students to contribute to the economy, Acuña said it should also mean more.
“Let’s provide a high-quality liberal education that, yes, can contribute to the economy in the market and those kinds of things, but also has its roots [in] a kind of higher-level understanding of what advanced education means, and not just as a factory churning out workers for a market.”
Manitoba universities ‘scrambling’
In April, the Manitoba government asked universities to prepare for an up to 30 per cent payroll cut in just five days. Those were calendar days, not business days, notes Scott Forbes, president of the Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations.
The province later reversed those cuts and created a one-time transitional support fund of $25.6 million for post-secondary institutions. But it still made cuts to operating grants for the four publicly funded universities in the province, including a five per cent cut to the largest university, the University of Manitoba, amounting to a $17.3-million loss. For the University of Winnipeg, it was a 3.7 per cent cut, or about $2.3 million in lost grants, according to Forbes.
“The universities are scrambling to try and make up the revenue shortfalls, even though enrolment has held,” Forbes told HuffPost. Summer enrolment at the University of Winnipeg, where he works as a biology professor, was at a record high this year, as the university struggled to cut costs while also revamping its IT infrastructure to prepare for an onslaught of videos and online material.
The province has said that universities can apply to get the money back, but the criteria for this are vague, Forbes said.
“We’re all approaching the fall quite fearfully,” he said.
A provincial spokesperson said post-secondary institutions can submit a plan by Sept. 15 to access money from the province’s $25.6 million transitional support fund. The value of the fund restores a one per cent reduction in the 2020 budget.
“For students as well, being told that their education isn't important is going to be a tough pill to swallow.”
“We will work with the post-secondary sector to create targeted plans for these funds to address financial unknowns, such as the costs of enhanced online learning and implementation of international student readiness plans, and decreases in tuition revenue due to lower-than-anticipated enrolment,” the spokesperson said.
Manitoba also halted its plan to introduce performance-based funding metrics, but Forbes said the mentality behind the policy remains a concern.
“The next big jolt to post-secondary education in Manitoba is the push by the provincial government to alter what universities offer,” he said, noting this will mean less emphasis on liberal arts and more of a focus on hands-on training.
University of Winnipeg spokesperson Kevin Rosen said the province has set aside some funding that universities can submit plans for in September, to enhance online materials and respond to unanticipated changes in enrolment.
“The province is demonstrating their commitment to the future of Manitoba by making these funds available,” Rosen said, adding that the university will continue to work to ensure students have a high-quality educational experience.
Jacqueline Romanow, president of the University of Winnipeg Faculty Association, said in addition to the practical concerns over the impact of the proposed 30 per cent cuts, the government’s announcement was demoralizing — and not just for faculty.
“For students as well, being told that their education isn’t important is going to be a tough pill to swallow,” she told HuffPost.
“If Manitoba wants to keep their students, educate their students and help them stay and contribute to Manitoba, telling them when they’re 19 years old that their hopes and dreams aren’t important is not going to help that.”
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