Chronic government under-funding for postsecondary education means Ontario now offers the least per-student funding of any province in Canada. As a result, Ontario’s public colleges are increasingly being pushed to recklessly pursue other revenue streams.
This includes both a drive to contract out public services as well as problematic, for-profit ventures with private colleges, corporations and even corrupt governments around the world. However, far from helping to balance the books, these questionable endeavors risk the reputation, the educational quality, and even the financial health of our colleges.
The third issue of Ontario’s Public Colleges at 50: A Better Plan looks at some examples of privatization under way in our colleges, and the risks we face as a result.
In particular, this issue looks at the reputational and financial risks posed by some colleges’ decisions to do business with corrupt governments overseas; the significant problems created when colleges sell or license courses or entire programs to private career colleges; and the risks to students of contracting out frontline services, including the mental health supports provided by counsellors. In the first case, decisions to do business with dictators, as in the case of the Saudi Arabian campuses of Algonquin and Niagara, raise the question: how much public money is being diverted to these risky international activities that fail to abide by basic human rights standards? As Jack Wilson, Vice President of Local 415 at Algonquin College says, "Should the colleges bear the risks of these foreign ventures simply because our own provincial government has failed to properly fund the colleges?"
In a case closer to home, the arrangement to contract out program delivery to private colleges offers the hope of short-term financial benefits to Ontario’s smaller colleges, but will do immense damage to the colleges’ reputation in the long run. Privately run, second-tier colleges lack the experienced full-time faculty, student diversity, program breadth, recreational facilities, libraries, student services, and sheer complexity that make public colleges such a vibrant learning environment. Indeed, students enrolled in these shops are often required to sign a waiver stating that they understand that they will not have access to the same facilities and student services as students in the mother college.
Our third bargaining video focuses in on this issue and takes a deeper look at who has to lose in order to generate profits for the owners of these private colleges.
Finally, many of Ontario’s colleges are increasingly contracting out frontline services such as cleaning, food services, IT support, security, and bookstore management to private corporations. We’ve all seen the decline in our general campus environment as a result of profit-seeking corporations not providing sufficient resources: dirty classrooms, cafeterias, and bathrooms; security guards who aren’t trained properly to deal with complex student altercations; and textbook orders that don’t arrive in time for courses.
However, the colleges have now set their eyes on a new target for contracting out: counselling. In recent years, colleges such as Canadore have laid off full-time counsellors and replaced them with a smaller number of privately contracted counsellors. Other colleges have contracted with mega-corporations Morneau Shepell and guard.me International Insurance to provide online and email counselling for their international students instead of real, face-to-face professionals who can be there in a more stable and meaningful way. Doesn’t the mental health of our students deserve more than this?
It doesn’t have to be this way. Instead of requiring colleges to engage in risky schemes in an attempt to make up revenue shortfalls, we should ensure they have enough funding to deliver the education that students need. Isn’t that their real job?
Chair, CAAT-Academic Divisional Executive