Ontario has deferred the deadline for colleges and universities to sign onto a significant and controversial change to their provincial funding.

The previous agreements between the province and post-secondary institutions expired in March 2020. The ministry had been working to sign new ones that would extend until 2025 — and would include new conditions for funding — by March 31, ministry spokesperson Ciara Byrne told HuffPost Canada in an email.

Minister of Colleges and Universities Ross Romano deferred the deadline to sign the new agreements “so that colleges and universities can focus their resources on addressing the extraordinary challenges that have emerged due to COVID-19,” Byrne said.

Byrne did not say when the deadline has been deferred to, or what might happen if the outbreak continues into September. 

“We are pleased that Minister Romano has agreed to a pause in the process until the ramifications of the pandemic on the sector and the economy are more fully understood,” David Lindsay, president and CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities, said in an emailed statement to HuffPost. 

Ontario universities receive regular transfer payments from the province. Lindsay said the council is not anticipating any changes to the current transfer payment schedule.

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In its 2019 budget, the province revealed its plan to increase performance-based funding in the 2020-21 academic year. Previously, 1.4 per cent of universities’ funding, and 1.2 per cent for colleges, has been tied to performance. In the 2020-21 year, up to 25 per cent of the province’s operating funding for these schools was to be based on ten performance metrics, according to the ministry spokesperson.

That number was set to go up to 60 per cent in five years. 

The performance metrics include:

  • Graduate employment earnings,
  • The proportion of graduates employed full-time in a related or partially related field to their program of study,
  • Graduate rate.

Institutions would be able to weight the metrics based on their academic priorities and the past success of certain faculties and research fields.

WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promises $9 billion aid package for students. Story continues below.

‘Risky’ performance metrics criticized 

Marc Spooner, a faculty of education professor at the University of Regina, said  performance measures tied to funding distort the purpose of a university to foster creative thinking and create well-rounded citizens by encouraging universities to act more like job training centres. 

Spooner said the COVID-19 crisis has exposed the “utter folly” of the indicators.

“They’re mostly based on the labor market, and other economic indicators, which the university has little control over.”

He also said the metrics that reward privately funded research risk turning a university into “a corporate-style research and development centre” rather than a centre doing research for the public interest. 

The Ontario Universities and Colleges Coalition said in a September 2019 statement that the new funding approach would “fundamentally compromise the integrity of Ontario’s higher education system.”

The statement says the change could lead to the “corporatization” of post-secondary institutions, as they look for private funding to make up gaps, as well as potentially skew admission requirements to admit students with the best chance of being employed after graduating, hindering access for marginalized students

“The anxiety and economic uncertainty resulting from the COVID-19 crisis will make it difficult, if not impossible for institutions to meet many of the targets identified by the government, including metrics measuring employment rates, graduation rates, economic impact, and research funding,” Rahul Sapra, president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, wrote in a letter to Romano dated April 7. 

The letter called the new policies “risky” and asked the ministry not just to delay the introduction of performance-based metrics, but to reconsider their introduction altogether. 

“This crisis demonstrates the serious inequities, instabilities, and flaws embedded within this new funding formula.”

The ministry spokesperson declined to comment on HuffPost’s questions about the criticism of the performance metrics as a condition of funding. 

Students entering a tough job market 

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the job market for many post-secondary students and recent graduates. Canada lost two million jobs in April, job losses that Statistics Canada called “unprecedented.” 

Over two-thirds of the continuing post-secondary students who responded said they were very or extremely concerned about the impact of the pandemic on their finances in a recent Statistics Canada crowdsourcing data collection.

“The government understands that the current climate requires flexibility as the situation evolves,” Byrne, the ministry spokesperson, said. “As we continue to monitor the situation, we will work with our postsecondary institutions to ensure that we proceed with agreements in which all metrics achieve the desired outcomes for students today and in the future.”

The province will work with colleges and universities to sign the agreements once Ontario “moves past the outbreak,” she said. 

The introduction of the new performance-based measures in 2019 came alongside the province’s sweeping changes to post-secondary education funding, including changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program and a 10 per cent tuition decrease for domestic students, amounting to millions of dollars lost for some colleges and universities.