TORONTO - Students at Ontario's universities are getting short-changed when it comes to their education as their schools struggle with larger class sizes, outdated facilities and less full-time hiring, according to a new report.

A survey of faculty and academic librarians to be released Monday finds a significant degree of concern that the quality of higher education in the province has fallen over the past three years.

In all, just under 40 per cent of those asked felt quality had declined, while only eight per cent saw an improvement.

"They're struggling to deliver a meaningful education to increasingly large classes," said Prof. Brian E. Brown, president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.

"We can't just move our economy ahead if we leave our students behind."

Almost 2,000 faculty members and academic librarians at 22 universities across the province responded to the association's questionnaire between Feb. 16 and March 13.

More than 60 per cent said class sizes had increased over the past three years, while 22 per cent said full-time faculty who had left their posts were not replaced.

Brown blamed "chronic underfunding" for the situation, saying the results suggest the Ontario government's "Reaching Higher" plan put in place in 2005 has failed to deliver quality improvements.

That plan, which the government called the "largest multi-year investment in 40 years" in higher education, promised an additional $6.2 billion over five years -- a 39 per cent increase from 2004.

Currently the province spends about $6 billion a year on post-secondary education and training.

Nevertheless, the association, which speaks for about 15,000 faculty and academic librarians, is urging the Liberal government to spend another $1.5 billion in the coming year on higher education when it delivers its budget on Thursday.

Of that, $400 million would go to hiring more professors and the rest would go for repairs and upgrades to laboratories, libraries and other facilities and eliminate the need for tuition hikes.

Brown admitted squeezing more money out of the government is a tough sell given the current economic climate, but called the extra spending vital.

"We're sensitive to the financial realities that are facing Ontario at the moment but we need to make a distinction between a cost and an investment," said Brown, a visual arts professor at the University of Windsor.

"An increase in university funding is not a liability on a balance sheet; it's an investment in future prosperity for Ontario."

He noted rising unemployment and the economic malaise have prompted more students to stay in school longer or return to university where they might otherwise have been working.

At the same time, many schools have instituted a hiring freeze.

One brighter spot in the survey was in research capacity, particularly at the post-graduate level, with 37 per cent saying it had improved because of more funding.