The Blue-Ribbon panel’s report was commissioned by the provincial government after Laurentian University declared insolvency and several reports from the Auditor General highlighted concerns around university and college finances.
Tuition fees from international students made up 31% of total college revenue in 2020/21, compared to 17.5% from domestic students, but the panel noted this income is threatened by global factors including pandemics, geo-political events, and immigration and foreign policy shifts.
The group added that “significant risk arises” when the student experience suffers because of a lack of suitable housing or student services – problems that are more apparent in public-private college partnerships, which primarily cater to international students.
The panel recommended that colleges be held accountable to fulfil the Ministry of Colleges and Universities’ spring 2023 policy directive on these partnerships, which places responsibility on providers to uphold the same standards at their public-private campuses as they do at their main ones.
They wrote that the government and colleges should collaborate to uphold this new accountability framework and encouraged further discussions between the ministry and post-secondary institutions, including a “comprehensive review” of plans for any international enrolment expansion.
The panel also suggested that the “arbitrary” enrolment cap of 7,500 students at these campuses should be reviewed, as colleges argue it is not reflective of size or financial realities.
They further suggested reducing or eliminating the student recovery fee of $375 per year for each full-time international student paid by Ontario’s post-secondary colleges. Under these recommendations, universities would still be liable to pay the fee.
For universities, money from international students accounts for less than 20% of total revenue, but still represents a considerable proportion.
“The time for government action is now”
Although these figures vary between institutions, the panel noted that many colleges and universities “have passed the point” where they could survive financially with only domestic students.
They acknowledged the financial contributions international students make to Ontario’s post-secondary sector but added that the risk associated with “unbridled or unmanaged growth is also very real”.
The group also recommended increasing government contributions and domestic tuition fees across all institutions – a move welcomed by Ontario’s Universities.
Jill Dunlop, minister of Colleges and Universities, said the department is “carefully reviewing” the recommendations but would need to ensure universities and colleges are operating efficiently before agreeing to any tuition fee increases.
Steve Orsini, president and CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities said the financial situation is becoming “increasingly untenable”.
“Universities can no longer continue to absorb cuts and freezes amidst rising inflation and costs, and many are facing deficits, with the growing risk of insolvencies,” he said. “The time for government action is now.”