Does Ford’s victory pose a threat to universities?

On 8 June in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, a new government was voted in. For the first time in 15 years, the Progressive Conservatives won a majority of ridings, taking 76 seats out of 124. This is a significant defeat for the former leading party, the Ontario Liberals, which won only seven seats, losing both its rule and its status as an official party. In Canadian politics, provincial elections are watched closely, since high-ticket items like education and healthcare are provincially administered.

While Conservative governments are often associated with fiscal austerity, there is no sense yet of where funding cuts will be targeted. As the new party takes office, universities are faced with the ominous questions: What effect will the new Progressive Conservative (PC) government have on higher education in Ontario? Should this be a time of celebration or mourning?

Background: the PC victory

Over the past five years the Ontario Liberals dropped dramatically in the polls as scandals of financial mismanagement were brought to light, resulting in criminal charges. This led to a heated campaign battle between the opposition parties who saw their very real chance to replace the Liberals.

After a rocky start, and the resignation of the first PC leader, the PC party put forward a household name as their new head: Doug Ford – brother of the late Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Doug Ford swept into leadership with the hero-like messaging “Help is on the way!”

Because of Canada’s close proximity to the United States, critics of the PC leader were quick to compare him with US President Donald Trump. Ford’s position as a successful businessman and even his blonde hair were frequently in the media.

But for the most part, the similarities end there. While Trump is worth US$3.1 billion with branded high-rises around the world, Ford owns a successful printing business with offices in Toronto, Chicago and New Jersey. While Trump stands next to a super model, Doug Ford announced his candidacy from his mother’s basement.

More importantly, Ford has shown little of the xenophobia associated with Trump and Ford made significant connections with Ontario’s diverse communities throughout his campaign. Those local connections served him well as voters viewed him as an entrepreneurial neighbour, ready to help.

What this means for universities

Unfortunately for universities, Ford is unlikely to be a good neighbour. At the centre of his campaign was a familiar message: the government needs to stop wasting taxpayer money. He promised to decrease taxes, cut the cost of hydro-electricity, even reduce the cost of beer. For residents of Toronto these messages bring back negative memories of his brother’s mayoral tenure during which city programmes such as libraries and zoos were labelled as wasteful spending.

Yet during his campaign, Doug Ford said little about his plans regarding higher education. While the other political parties campaigned on platforms to increase access and support low-income students, Ford’s offered few of these promises.

Rather, Ford takes power in troubling times for students who hope to keep tuition affordable; in 2019 the policy that caps annual tuition increases at 3% will be removed in Ontario. While increasing tuition fees was not part of Ford’s campaign promises, it is a likely cost-saving mechanism in a province where all major universities are publicly funded.

During the campaign, Ford’s only official foray into higher education policy was a brief plan to referee the free speech debate that has rocked the province. Last month Ford promised he would expand the mandate of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario and make sure that all funded universities were allowed free speech. These comments raise concerns for universities that have long-standing values of self-governance and academic freedom.

Ultimately, history shows that universities and colleges in Ontario should anticipate their share of funding cuts. In the 1990s, the last time the PCs held a majority government, there was a CA$400 million (US$308 million) cut from universities and colleges; tuition fees rose by 60% and professor-to-student ratios decreased dramatically.

With Ford’s promise to cut spending and increase efficiencies, it will be surprising if he does not go down the same road. As the cuts are felt, the best option for Ontario’s universities may just be to stay out of sight.

Grace Karram Stephenson is a post-doctoral fellow in the department of leadership, higher and adult education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Canada.