Recently, a colleague asked me how big I thought the gap in funding was between polytechnics and universities. My hunch was that universities were certainly better funded if you include all sources of income, but that if you just looked at core provincial government funding, the gap might not be so large. So, for giggles, I decided to try to compare the two.
Due to the complexity of various funding mechanisms and – especially – the difference in the nature of the activities funded, this is necessarily a somewhat back-of-the-envelope exercise. For maximum comparability, I look only at funding from provincial governments. Tuition is thus excluded from the comparison (though nationally, tuition in both the college and university sectors are roughly 25-30% of total income), as well as income from federal sources (mainly for research) and self-generated income. For reasons of sheer manageability (this is a free email) and reasons of time this is also not a system-wide comparison, but rather a comparison between selected institutions. In each province, funding for polytechnics is compared to funding for one or more comprehensive universities. Comprehensives make the most sense as a comparator because their breadth of programs is most similar to those available in polytechnics (certainly more so than U-15 schools with their medical faculties or small liberal arts colleges which lack eng/tech programs). Because Manitoba has no comprehensive university, I exclude Red River College from this exercise. I also exclude Kwantlen because its dual status as both a polytech and a university complicates comparisons.
Finally, to improve comparability, I look at funding on a per-student basis. This creates some issues because in the college sector, how individual institutions and how Statscan report enrolment differs significantly. I therefore present estimates of per-student funding based on both sources and allow the reader to interpret accordingly. Data on government income for polytechnics is taken from each’s most recent available annual or business report; for universities it is taken from Statistics Canada’s Financial Information of Universities and Colleges. The reader will note that these different data sources can produce quite different results.
Ready? Here we go.
Starting in the West, in British Columbia, I compare the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) with Simon Fraser University.
Table 1: British Columbia per-student government funding comparisons
Public funding at Simon Fraser University is $10,436 per student (per Statscan). Using Statscan enrolment counts, the amount for BCIT is smaller by about 10%; however, when we look at institutional student counts, the gap grows to almost 40%. Our judgement here should therefore probably be that in British Columbia, universities are better funded than polytechnics offering a comparable suite of programs.
Now, over the mountains to Alberta (hopefully skirting any emerging trade wars), where I compare the Northern and Southern Alberta Institutes of Technology (NAIT and SAIT) with the University of Lethbridge.
Table 2: Alberta per-student government funding comparisons
Public funding at the Lethbridge is $12,548 per student (per Statscan). Using Statscan enrolment counts, the amounts for the two polytechnics are between a quarter and a third higher. If we look instead at institutional student counts, the gap mostly disappears, with Lethbridge’s funding being slightly lower than SAIT but higher than NAIT. Our judgement here should therefore probably be that in Alberta, polytechnics are funded equal to, or possibly somewhat better, than universities offering a comparable suite of programs.
Heading into Saskatchewan, we see that Saskatchewan Polytechnic appears to get vastly more funding than the University of Regina, either by 48% if you take the institution’s enrolment numbers, or over 100% if you use the Statscan figures. The U of R numbers are arguably slightly under-reported (if you throw in funding for Luther and Campion Colleges as well as for First Nations University, you probably end up adding about 7% to the U of R figure) and I’m not entirely clear how money and students from Saskatchewan’s regional colleges who are taking courses at Sask Poly get counted. But it seems unlikely that this would close the gap entirely, and so the most reasonable judgement here is that polytechnics in Saskatchewan are likely better funded than universities.
Table 3: Saskatchewan per-student government funding comparisons
As noted earlier, we will skip over Manitoba due to a lack of comparators, and go directly to in Ontario where we compare the seven Polytechnics with two major comprehensive universities, Carleton and Guelph. The Ontario data is somewhat more difficult to interpret both because the variance between institutional and Statistics Canada numbers are quite wide, but also because not all students are funded in Ontario, because the funding formula excludes international students. Therefore, institutions with many international students will appear to have lower per-student public funding.
Table 4: Ontario per-student government funding comparisons
Table 4 shows that public funding at Carleton and Guelph is $6,609 and $7,044 per student, respectively. Using the latest available Statscan enrolment counts, the amounts for the seven polytechnics range from $5,317 and $6,324, with an unweighted average of a little over $5800. If one uses FLEs instead, the spread is wider, but the unweighted average is almost exactly the same – just over $5800. Our judgement here should therefore probably be that in Ontario, polytechnics are funded at a level which is 15-20% below that of universities.
Overall, this review suggests that most Canadian polytechnics receive core provincial operating funds at levels below those of comprehensive universities. The exceptions are the polytechnics in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where they are at least as well funded as universities and possibly better funded. Note that even in these institutional cases, overall funding levels may not be comparable. Even if tuition revenues look somewhat similar, there is a major disparity in both philanthropic and research funding in favour of universities, which by and large translates into major differences in scientific infrastructure.
So now you know.