Ontario AG audits four universities' financial management, here is what she found
Following the Laurentian University financial crisis, the Ontario Auditor General conducted audits on the financial management of the province's universities and released her findings Wednesday in her 10th annual report.
In the report – which includes 15 different value-for-money audits -- Bonnie Lysyk reviewed the financial operations at four of Ontario’s small to medium-sized universities in the wake of Laurentian University's unprecedented decision to file for creditor protection last year. LU emerged from insolvency Monday, two days ahead of its deadline.
Lysyk's audit finds all four universities audited – Nipissing University, Algoma University, Ontario Tech and University of Windsor -- are currently operating in a financially-stable manner.
The audit found Nipissing and Algoma had accumulated a surplus of funds and were financially stable at the time of the audit.
However, out of the four universities audited, only Algoma had a consistent surplus from 2016/17 to 2020/21.
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Nipissing and Algoma established debt policies in 2021, but limits would have been exceeded prior to 2019/20 if the new debt policies were applied retroactively.
The audit found neither Nipissing nor Algoma reviewed or monitored the profitability of the ancillary services they provide.
"(It) also determined the Ministry of Colleges and Universities does not have a clear strategy or long-term vision for the post-secondary sector," the Office of the Auditor General of Ontario said in a news release Wednesday.
"Ontario’s domestic tuition reduction and freeze and relatively low per-student funding have necessitated an increased financial dependence on international students’ tuition fees."
The report summary said in 2021/22, three of the four selected universities (Algoma, Nipissing, and Windsor) relied significantly on one country (India) for their international students.
The Sault Ste. Marie-based insitution's revenue was largely driven by international students from India who enrolled at its Brampton campus, the report summary said.
"As of 2021/22, the Brampton campus generated 65 per cent of the university’s revenue and 51 per cent of the university’s total enrolment; 90 per cent of Brampton’s enrolment are international students," it said.
Algoma University President and Vice-Chancellor Asima Vezina said all post-secondary institutions are focussing on the same thing.
"We’re just entering into a new strategic planning process right now which will guide the university into the next three years," Vezina said.
Nipissing experienced deficits in four of five fiscal years from the 2016/17 school year to the 2020/21 school year, causing it to draw down its net assets by $9.4 million.
The report found Nipissing was losing money overall on its academic programming prior to the pandemic and had not adjusted its program offerings.The school also has $34.7 million in debt from various construction projects.
"We believe strongly in the liberal arts institution and the entire board remains committed to that," said Nipissing University President and Vice-Chancellor Kevin Wamsley.
Nipissing relies primarrily on domestic tuition and government grants, with 99 per cent of its student population local.
"There are some challenges in the sector and Ontario, like other provinces, are trying to establish a sustainable university publicly-funded model," Wamsley said.
"We’re aware and the audit took place at the end of 2021 fiscal. So we’ve had a year and a half since then to work on a number of projects since then to support our revenues."
ONTARIO TECH UNIVERSITY
The Oshawa-based school had surpluses four of the last five years due in part to an increase in international student enrolment from various countries, the report summary said.
"As of March 31, 2021, Ontario Tech’s debt totalled $188 million. Ontario Tech did not always assess the financial feasibility of major capital projects before proceeding with them," the summary said.
UNIVERSITY OF WINDSOR
"Despite having the third-highest debt-per-student ratio among 19 Ontario universities, there was no policy in place limiting external financing. At the end of 2020/21, the university had $234.3 million in debt, primarily comprising debentures maturing in 2043 or after," the report summary said.
"In 2020/21, 60 per cent of international students at the university were from India and 12 per cent were from China. Over-reliance on a few geographic regions increases the risk that external factors, such as a global economic downturn or foreign policy shift, could significantly impact a university’s financial health."
Each university surveyed cooperated fully, was open for discussion and receptive to all recommendations made, the report said.
The audit includes 21 recommendations for improvement and said if issues are left unaddressed, weaknesses in the university's financial management practices could put the future of sustainability of the schools at risk.
Read the summary report here.
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