Ontario universities seek govt support in face of $500M shortfall due to COVID: group


TORONTO — Ontario’s universities are facing a shortfall of about half a billion dollars this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, an advocacy group for the sector said Friday in seeking government relief.

Schools incurred significant expenses in the switch to remote learning, in implementing enhanced health and safety measures, and in providing personal protective equipment, the Council of Ontario Universities said.

At the same time, revenues from student residences, facilities and other sources took a hit, for a combined loss of roughly $1 billion for the 2020-2021 school year among the province’s 21 universities, the group said.

Institutions made one-time cuts and savings to bring that number down by about half, and are now asking for sector-wide support from the province to help make up the difference, the organization said.

Steve Orsini, the organization’s president and CEO, wouldn’t say whether other cuts or changes would be necessary if universities don’t receive additional funding.

But he said the province has “a number of options” to support the sector, which would in turn support the workforce, the economy and the province’s recovery.

“We know that not supporting this sector will not support students, local communities, and our economic recovery,” he said.

Universities achieved savings this year through “temporary reductions” and deferring some spending, which may not be possible long term, Orsini said.

“You can’t defer some capital or some maintenance or things for far too long,” he said.

With no clear end to the pandemic, universities will likely face more financial pressure down the line, he said, noting the group is asking the province for a long-term strategy as well as immediate relief.

“What we’re looking for right now is to deal with the impact of COVID-19 in the 2021 fiscal period, but we’ll continue to monitor … how this is impacting the sector over time,” he said.

“There will need to be a review, if this pandemic continues, of what additional steps universities will take to manage it, and what additional costs we’d be looking for government support to help us get through.”

One northern Ontario university’s financial situation has been under scrutiny recently after it filed for creditor protection earlier this month, following a decade of financial strain from issues that predated the pandemic.

Laurentian University’s president has said the school is insolvent due to a number of factors, including declining population in the region, recurring historical deficits and the 2019 closure of the school’s campus in Barrie, Ont.

Robert Hache has also said the Progressive Conservative government’s decision to reduce and freeze tuition fees in 2019 and the costs and impacts of the global pandemic contributed to the Sudbury, Ont., school’s plight.

The province has assigned an investigator to examine the school’s financial problems, and a report is expected in the coming months. The report aims to help the government decide what steps to take regarding the university.

Asked whether any other institutions were struggling to a similar extent, Orsini said he couldn’t comment on the financial status of individual schools, and stressed universities have worked hard to “maintain strong financial discipline” during the crisis.

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press