Northerners support post-secondary education
Laurentian University engineering professor Anis Farah said he clearly remembers the impact of cuts to university funding in the 1990s, and is not keen on a repeat of the situation.
Farah, now the president of the Laurentian University Faculty Association, said the university's programming started to suffer, and professors only received a one-per-cent pay increase over eight years.
“So essentially you get paralyzed for a certain period because the revenue to the university is being cut and cut,” he said. “It becomes a serious problem, and I hope it doesn't happen again.”
The results of an online survey from the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) appear to back up Farah's point of view.
The survey shows that while Ontario residents want the deficit eliminated, they want to make sure the quality of university education isn't compromised in the process, said OCUFA president Constance Adamson.
“I think the message we'd like to send to the politicians is back off from going after the university sector,” she said.
“The sector provides opportunities for young people, it is an engine of economic growth and it's really important to the region.”
The survey, conducted in December, involved 1,518 people provincewide, including 301 people in Northern Ontario.
About 83 per cent of northerners said it's either somewhat important or very important for the provincial government to reduce the deficit.
At the same time, though, 82 per cent of northerners think that university education should be considered a high priority by the provincial government.
About a third of northerners think lowering tuition fees is the most important thing the provincial government should do for university education in Ontario.
As well, about half of northerners think that the best way to determine the salaries and working conditions of university professors is to continue to allow collective bargaining between faculty associations and university administration.
About 55 per cent of northerners disagree that the government should override the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers as a strategy to reduce the deficit.
Most of the survey results in Northern Ontario reflect those from the province as a whole, with a few exceptions, said André Turcotte, a Carleton University professor who conducted the survey.
People in Ontario as a whole are split evenly on whether they think the goal of university is to produce job-ready students or well-rounded students. In Northern Ontario, the majority, at 52 per cent, leaned toward job-ready students.
Farah speculated that this is likely because the north has a resource-based economy that creates jobs which require specific qualifications.
I think the message we'd like to to send to the politicians is back off from going after the university sector.
“In other areas of the province, in Toronto and so on, somebody with a history degree has a chance of getting a job in banking and finance, even if they don't have the specific qualifications,” he said. “But here in the north, I think our economy is geared to people with specific qualifications.”
As well, 26 per cent of northerners picked the NDP as the political party most likely to improve the quality of university education in Ontario. Provincewide, the Liberals had the edge when it came to this question.
Farah said this is likely because people in Northern Ontario tend to vote for the NDP.
The mantra in the province right now seems to be “we all have to tighten our belts, and we have to cut, cut, cut,” Adamson said.
But cutting university funding is harmful because it ultimately means less faculty to teach students and lower-quality programs, she said.
Among the cost-cutting measures being talked about by Ontario politicians right now are increasing online education, putting more emphasis on three-year degrees instead of four-year degrees and opening teaching-only universities.
But Adamson said if online education is done right it isn't cheaper, because it requires supports for students.
“You can't just throw a course out there and let people sink or swim,” she said.
She doesn't think three-year degrees are a good idea, because the province has already eliminated Grade 13, and many professors say their students aren't prepared when they get to university.
As for having teaching-only institutions where professors don't engage in research, Adamson said she doesn't consider such facilities universities, and they haven't been proven to save money anyway.
Last fall, the province was attempting to pass a bill to impose measure such as wage freezes on many public sector workers, including university professors.
Adamson said that bill died when the legislature was prorogued.
She said she's encouraged that Premier Kathleen Wynne, who took the reins at Queen's Park last month, will do things differently.
“She seems willing to talk,” Adamson said. “She seems willing to find a different way forward without imposing legislation that would essentially take away our collective bargaining rights.”
Farah said cuts to Laurentian, as well as the two local colleges, could have a devastating impact on the community.
Local businesses depend on graduates to fulfil their workforce requirements. Other graduates go on to start their own companies.
“Education is very important to this community from an economic point of view,” he said.
“In addition to educating the local students, it brings students from other parts of the world, the province, the country. They spend quite a bit of money here.”