Laurentian University is in peril, and it’s not alone. Governments have systematically underfunded universities and colleges across the country for decades

Posted on April 11, 2021 in Education Debates

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Contributors

There was a heated volley in the House of Commons recently over the fate of French post-secondary education in the country. “The official languages in education program has been frozen for years,” noted opposition MP Alexandre Boulerice. “In Alberta, Campus Saint-Jean is under attack from the Kenney government. In Ontario, Laurentian University is fighting to survive.”

He’s right.

In February, Laurentian University — a post-secondary education hub in northern Ontario serving First Nations, French and English communities — was granted court-ordered insolvency protection. This is an unprecedented development.

The federal Liberals were quick to blame the provincial Conservatives, but the truth is both bear responsibility. Governments have systematically underfunded universities and colleges across the country for decades.

In 2019, the Ford government cut $360 million from Ontario university budgets by reducing tuition by 10 per cent, then freezing it into 2021. This followed years of public funding not keeping pace with enrolment: Ontario provides the lowest per-student university funding in Canada.

Federal government funding has also stagnated. The last top-up to provincial transfers for post-secondary was $800 million in 2008.

COVID-19 and lockdowns have only exacerbated the troubles of struggling post-secondary institutions, largely left out of federal and provincial emergency supports. Rural and remote post-secondary institutions, and those that offer bilingual and Indigenous education, are even more vulnerable.

The financial problems at Laurentian, however, pre-date COVID-19. It is not due to faculty salaries, as the number of full-time faculty has actually declined over the last decade. Nor is it due to enrolment which has remained stable over the last decade.

So, what brought Laurentian to the brink?

In addition to the government funding drought, details are emerging on poor decisions made by the University’s Board. For example, campus modernization has left Laurentian with big mortgages on still half-empty buildings. Administrators will need to be held to account for a lack of transparency and financial missteps.

Without emergency funding, Laurentian will suffer, or worse, close. Its loss, either through a thousand cuts or in one swift move, would be a tragedy.

Laurentian provides education for many underserved and lower-income students, who may not otherwise be able to afford or access university in major urban centres. The majority of graduates stay and work in the region. It provides jobs for around 1,000 people, educates over 9,000 students and undertakes world-class research.

When the financial troubles of GM in Oshawa threatened 2,000 jobs, the federal and provincial governments provided over $10 billion in emergency support. For Laurentian, silence and inaction.

The federal and provincial governments must work together and save Laurentian University now. They should provide immediate funding to protect jobs, students’ education and Laurentian’s unique mandate of bilingual and tricultural education.

Laurentian must survive, so that our post-secondary education system can once again thrive.

Brenda Austin-Smith is president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, which represents 72,000 academic staff at universities and colleges across the country.

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