Promises and the Liberal Long Game: Tuition in Ontario

Guest post by Eric Newstadt

There has been a lot of interest in the Liberal plan to offer full-time students an up-front grant so as to reduce their tuition-fees, not least from yours truly.  Indeed, the promise is a rather curious one, given McGuinty’s approach to tuition-fees since 2005.  First to strategy: It is notable that the Libs tried the same thing federally and we all know how that turned out.  As our long lost friend the Lonely Economist pointed out, this kind of grant doesn’t get the vote out, and it did almost nothing to swing popular opinion of the Libs.  Protectors of public services these pioneers of privatization are not.  What’s more, it is an odd move by a government that has just allowed tuition fees to rise by over 30 %.  Walkom, in today’s Toronto Star, is of the opinion that the Libs are responding to middle class anxiety in the midst of a recession; and in the process admitting that they were, as he put it, “dead wrong” to allow tuition-fees to rise annually since 2006.  As I explain below, I’m convinced  this is much more than electoral brinkmanship, but a rather represents considered public policy: and a Trojan Horse at that.

Before getting to the meat, I want to point-out another oddity, namely the failure of the Libs new plan to address part-time students.  Why not provide some subsidy to students who need to take-on full-time work and part-time study?  If this is really a plan to re-distribute a little wealth, the failure to support part-timers seems like something of a missed opportunity.  So what is going on?

Here are the clues: The first has to do with the Libs language around “ROI” and “shared burdens”, much of which comes, as Walkom also notes, straight out of Bob Rae’s infamous Report.  In an upcoming post I’ll deal more specifically with the mythology behind “social” vs. “private” ROI in higher education, the very mythology that acts as the cornerstone of the Libs new plan (Nora Loreto in a facebook post usefully describes it as a “scheme”).  Through a dense array of smoke and mirrors both the Libs and the Cons have been want to argue that most of the spoils from investing in higher education flow to the individuals involved through increased wages over their working lives (never-mind that average wages haven’t moved and that over 70% of jobs now require post-secondary).  In other words, the Lib scheme is premised on a set of ideas and rooted in a language that helps to re-create the neoliberal vision of a largely privatized and commodified world where the state can sometimes usefully act to support markets, albeit without having any ability to plan anything at all.

The other clue has to do with the Government’s plan to allow York, Ryerson, and the UofT to open massive, under-graduate and teaching only “universities” in the City’s hinterlands, which was announced alongside the up-front grants promise.   Indeed, rumour has it that the Government’s initial plan to open a new, teaching only “university” have been scrapped – the existing diploma mills are being told to industrialize further, to bet, as the Once-ler would have it, on biggering and biggering and biggering.  This idea of “tiering” the universities (now called “differentiation” in a discourse more akin to industrial efficiency), most recently comes from the pages of “Academic Transformations”, the work of four long-serving and practically minded academics/administrators/policy wonks.  As with the issue of ROI, I will, in still another blog-to-come address the mythology behind calls within various quadrants of the academy to argue that teaching and research can, without any detriment, be pursued separately.  In the meantime, it is important to merely note that the Government, based in part on the impoverished social scientism found in “Academic Transformations” has trotted out the idea that teaching only “universities” don’t involve the sacrifice of quality.  But they do lower unit costs!  And they will likely provide a means through which the universities can side-step existing collective agreements, and soak-up a good chuck of the under-employed and/or over-worked backlog of Phd’s floating around Southern Ontario too.

And then there are the more obvious clues: the government will continue to allow tuition-fees to rise at rate of about 5% a year.  Meanwhile, “core-funding” arrangements – the operating dollars that universities get from the government annually – will continue to be negotiated via annual dances the result of which are “multi-year accountability agreements” (MYA’s).  Via these monsters the Government has been able to increase the amount of conditional and envelope funds available to universities and progressively cut-back on the amount transferred via formula-based “block grants” that depend on enrolment, not specific performance criteria.  This is important because it indicates is very telling when it comes to the nature of the Government’s commitment – promise to share the burden, and make no commitment to increase overall funding levels, except under special circumstances, and particularly when the universities are able to attract private-sector money (through things like research contracts, the sale of naming rights etc.).   The rhetoric might be about helping families, but the silences on core funding speak volumes too!

There is more too, outside of the conditional MYA’s, the Government has precipitously increased, just like the three governments before it, the amount of conditional research funding aimed at producing “commercialisable” research.  Such monies haven’t tended to provide much short or long-term support for operations, and have tended to tie the fate of researchers to their ability to attract private research “partners”.  And the problems with such arrangements are legion (and likewise fodder for another blog-post).  Again, the upshot is that the Government, far from wanting to offset the up-front cost of post-secondary is rather tied to supply side initiatives of which private sector players are the beneficiaries.

Having read the tea leaves, my breakdown: the Lib’s proposal, while a seductively large amount of money, is really a means by which the government can cut-back block grants to universities, privatize the entire post-secondary system, and also perfect the apparatus necessary to produce a docile workforce.  More than this, the structure of higher education that the Liberal proposal portends will also be a boon to private sector profits, but not to the number of people on private-sector payrolls.

We will deal with each assertion in turn.  Over the past two decades tuition-fee increases have indeed been offset by cuts to operating dollars.  With the present proposal, the government will continue to pay 30% of the cost of average tuition-fees, such that as tuition-fees increase so too will the absolute value of the subsidy.  And this means that the government will have cause to play the kind of shell game I’m predicting – as the absolute value of the up-front grant increases, the government will almost certainly cut-back on operating grants, particularly those that come without conditions.  As such, the up-front grant will become nothing more than a glorified voucher system.  Universities will have to compete feverishly to attract whatever numbers are necessary to support their operation.  Those that fail, will lay-off workers, and those that succeed will be able to attract more students.  And what will attract students?  Quality?  Maybe.  More likely it will be the promise of a better ROI (privately defined).

With lower unit costs (and weak, if any, unions), the teaching only “universities” will act as the tuition-fee floor for the Province and thereby as the educational-cum-training institutions to which most students are sentenced.   Where the ceiling will be is hard to say.  Still, the elite “research” universities will nonetheless be able to charge through the nose.  And because the government will only subsidize 30% of the cost of the average amount of tuition-fees in the Province, the elite schools will become the bastion of the rich and privately educated or the poor and deeply indebted.  Of course, it is worth bearing in mind, that quality at the elite institutions won’t be so much better that it will be at the teaching only schools, not least because conditional forms of research funding will continue to transform universities into contract research organizations, anxious to earn favour with the private sector.

I can hear the retort already: this kind of privatization/competition coupled with on-going research  support for the private sector will yield economic growth, more jobs, prosperity for all.  To which I can only answer: Since when have supply side initiatives produced sustained growth and reasonably equitable outcomes?  As a cherry I’ll add my next post, on the near-sighted impoverishment of our research infrastructure at the hands of neoliberal orthodoxy.  A preview: the data doesn’t support the idea that corporate co-sponsorship holds the promise of meaningful innovation.  A hornet’s nest…for next time.

2 thoughts on “Promises and the Liberal Long Game: Tuition in Ontario

  1. A governing party has finally promised to give students the lower tuition fees they’ve been asking for, but all we can do is call it a ploy to “cut-back block grants to universities, privatize the entire post-secondary system, and also perfect the apparatus necessary to produce a docile workforce.” Wow. Continue to condemn everything until your perfect utopian solution is presented. I’ll be over there hoping students’ fees are lower this time next year.

    • Sorry all the contributors to this blog have been in the university business too long to not be sceptical. Tell you what five years down the road if things do not look like Eric more or less outlined I will buy a beer for you.

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