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OPINION: The bigger picture: comparing Laurentian University and Université de l’Ontario français to the national post-secondary landscape

Canada’s bilingual reality remains a work in progress, especially in Ontario
Laurentian University in Sudbury (File photo)

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

President Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, gave new life to this phrase when he uttered it during Obama’s first term. What is routinely left out, though, is the second sentence in the quote: "…what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”

Is the current financial crisis at Laurentian University, and the simultaneous enrolment crisis at Université de l'Ontario français, such an opportunity? An opportunity to do something that we “could not do before?" This is the question Northern Policy Institute asked three leading thinkers to answer.

As those authors began to ponder that question, the University of Sudbury, with a long history of serving both the francophone and Indigenous communities, made a surprise announcement. It was “making its two charters available to these communities.” By sharing its charters, the University “seeks to develop postsecondary education by, for and with these communities.”

This announcement seems to have made the situation both more complex and more straightforward. Below is the third of the three pieces exploring why. The first is available to read here, while the second installment can be found here.

(Disclosure: NPI’s board chair, Pierre Bélanger, co-authored an open letter calling for a reassessment of Laurentian’s bilingual status. University of Sudbury’s Board of Regents is chaired by Pierre Riopel, who is also a director of NPI. As per NPI’s policy of research independence from our board, neither Mr. Bélanger nor Mr. Riopel were involved in commissioning or reviewing the reports considering the future of French language instruction in Ontario.)

To describe universities as political footballs is to understate the situation. For decades now, communities across Canada, and particularly in Ontario, have lobbied hard for the provincial government to establish a campus, or even a branch campus, in their city. The process has been awkward and, at times, unseemly, as civic and business leaders push for an expansion of the country’s already large and expensive post-secondary system. For most of the time, however, these efforts have focused on two elements: regional economic development or access for local students. The discussion about Laurentian University and Université de l’Ontario français add different and essential dimensions – language and culture – to an already volatile situation.  

The reluctant provincial announcement of Université de l’Ontario français, pushed over the line by a Government of Canada intrusion into provincial jurisdiction over post-secondary education, was not greeted with provincewide enthusiasm. Most observers questioned the need for a standalone francophone university, based largely on unproven demand in the Greater Toronto Area. Existing French language universities and programs worried about their future, including Université de Hearst, Laurentian University and the University of Sudbury. The recruitment stumbles of Université de l’Ontario français, made immensely more complicated by the disruptions of the pandemic, have proven the critics right (at least temporarily), thus raising serious questions about the future of the institution and the prospects for francophone post-secondary institutions in Ontario. What started out as a promising expansion of francophone post-secondary education in Ontario shows signs of becoming a serious debacle, complicating the realities of French language and bilingual education in Ontario, including Laurentian University, the University of Sudbury and the Université de Hearst.

Crises generate immediate and diverse ideas about how to address the gathering problem. Closing down Université de l’Ontario français, while politically challenging, would not be without precedent. British Columbia shuttered the Technical University of British Columbia when it failed to meet its enrollment targets; much earlier, Notre Dame University in Nelson, B.C., was also closed. And, of course, a close-to-home example would be Collège des Grands-Lacs, which closed in 2001. By that time, fewer than 60 students were enrolled. But the politics of language in Ontario make a tough stand on a Francophone institution electorally perilous. Given pandemic realities, and with financial restraint temporarily relegated to the distant background, precipitous political action is unlikely.  

There are many cultural and linguistic reasons to move quickly to address the financial and institutional challenges facing Laurentian University and Université de l’Ontario français. Other commentators in this series will address these issues at the institutional and program level; their commentaries make clear the passions, history, culture and regional importance of French-language instruction. Suffice to say the province’s francophone population deserves appropriate post-secondary opportunities, both as a means of educational support for a substantial population and as a major contribution to Ontario’s cultural and linguistic diversity. But the questions about a francophone institution do not exist in political isolation from the broader post-secondary system.

The broader enrollment and financial situation facing northern post-secondary institutions complicate the political and institutional options at hand. The northern institutions, like almost all the universities in Ontario, have become financially dependent on the large number of high-tuition-fee-paying international students. While the growth in enrollments across the North has been impressive, the impact of the pandemic and changing international demand makes the future uncertain, but not without long-term potential. Laurentian University’s well-publicized financial woes make it difficult to consider Laurentian University as the foundation for major post-secondary reform or institutional transformation. Indeed, the Government of Ontario is facing intense pressure to step in to help an institution in fiscal distress, likely using up provincial flexibility and political willingness to step in on broader issues of French language university instruction. But that is only the start of the difficulties. Northern institutions – Nipissing University, Laurentian University, Algoma University and Lakehead University – have substantial enrollment and related financial issues, offset for now by international student enrollments. The stagnant or declining regional populations have complicated the post-secondary realities of Northern Ontario, causing long-term challenges for the regional institutions.

Francophone institutions outside Ontario (and, obviously, outside Québec) have not enjoyed particular strength in recent years, however important post-secondary institutions may be cultural-linguistic institutions for francophone communities outside Quebec. While the Université de Moncton’s main campus has been relatively solid, the institution’s regional campuses have struggled. So it is in other parts of the country. On one level, the country assumed that the hundreds of thousands of graduates from French Immersion programs established under national official bilingualism would welcome the opportunity to continue their studies in French at university. In the 1980s, for example, the University of Victoria (and other Canadian English-language universities) received federal funding for an experiment in providing these students with a first-year French alternative. Student interest was tepid at best and the effort did not last for long. There appears to have been a national error in assuming, first, that the French Immersion students wanted to continue their studies in French and, more contentious, their ability to pursue post-secondary work in French.

In Ontario, the challenges of francophone education are exacerbated by the broader issues facing post-secondary education in the province. Ontario has a superb post-secondary network of colleges, polytechnics and universities, including specialized institutions. The Government of Ontario’s investment, supported by Government of Canada funding for research and a variety of specialty projects, in post-secondary education has been matched by students’ willingness to pay higher tuition fees (particularly for professional programs) and formidable international student interest that have, in combination, sustained the sector through stagnant or low growth in provincial funding. Furthermore, government financial support for post-secondary institutional expansion has not been exceptional in recent years, with priority placed on access and reducing tuition fees, both of which have affected institutional finances. In this regard, the decision to establish the Université de l’Ontario français is a clear outlier in the provincial system.

In the end, the university system in Canada, led by Ontario in many instances, has been driven by a combination of conservative growth, repeated political interventions and largely unchecked 21st century growth fuelled by international student enrollment. The fine universities of Northern Ontario – Nipissing, Laurentian, Algoma, Lakehead and the smaller Université de Hearst – owe their existence as much to political pressure than provincial initiative, with the institutions quickly emerging as the cornerstones of local economies. Other communities, most notably Timmins but also Orillia (the site of Lakehead University’s branch campus), have taken notice of the significant local impact of a post-secondary institution on both the regional society and the commercial environment. Université de l’Ontario français emerged out of a concerted, multi-year political effort, overcoming considerable government resistance and sector-wide scepticism. The first-year enrollment challenges have not gone unnoticed by critics and commentators who worried out loud about the potential recruitment difficulties facing a French-language institution in the Greater Toronto Area.

The pandemic has altered post-secondary enrollment realities dramatically in Ontario and across the country. Clearly, Université de l’Ontario français’s first year launch, which would have been challenging in the best of times, has been compromised by the massive uncertainties of 2021. The constraints on the enrollment of international students had significant effects on university budgets, with the full extent of the fiscal crisis still unfolding. The extra costs associated with the pandemic have been substantial, both in lost ancillary revenue (residences, cafeterias, parking and the like) and on the incremental costs associated with the protection of students, staff and faculty, moving courses and student services online, and shifting most of the workforce to home offices. Added to this have been shifts in enrollment due to dissatisfaction with online instruction and the loss of campus experiences, grave uncertainty about part-time and career jobs for students and graduates, and the financial distress felt in many families due to employment loss during the crisis. No university in the country is immune to the flow-on effects of COVID-19.

Laurentian University finds itself in a particularly challenging position because of its structural financial woes. Separate from the working out of French-language instruction – and the efforts by the institution, the University of Sudbury, faculty, staff and students show how valuable the region feels French university programming is – Laurentian University faces a difficult reckoning. Universities are more like ocean-going liners than speedboats. Unlike colleges and polytechnics, universities have long been prized for their solidity and reliability more than their nimbleness and adaptability. For Laurentian University, rapid and dramatic change is unavoidable. No observer of Canadian universities welcomes an institution’s difficult choices – about cutting programs, laying off staff, reducing expenses while simultaneously remaining attractive and supportive for incoming students. While a short-term rescue is highly likely, it will almost certainly carry the requirement for substantial institutional reform.

The thorough and excellent analysis by Alex Usher and the Higher Education Strategy Associates helps define the nature of the challenge and the changes facing Laurentian University, in the short term, and the Ontario university system more broadly. For example, in 2021, institutional choice mid-pandemic strongly favours the province’s top research universities, with northern and small city institutions suffering dramatic declines in total applications (a 15% decline in applications does not necessarily translate into a comparable decline in first-year admissions, but it does like mean the admission of an academically weaker first-year class, which has an effect on retention and graduation rates, to say nothing of the classroom experience for students and faculty). This trend, incidentally, is replicated across Canada and in the United States, suggesting that the pursuit of status and career opportunities continues to accelerate. This, in turn, puts growing pressure on the smaller, liberal arts campuses that are devoted to broad approaches to education with less emphasis on professional and technical programs.

Trends in University Applications, 2021*

Some Surprising Applications Data - HESA

Source: Higher Education Strategy Associates:, 27 January 2021.

(*According to a January 24, 2021 news report, the Université de Hearst received 17 applications, half the number of previous years.)

The data reports by HESA, similarly, documents a flight from the social sciences and humanities in favour of engineering, computer science and the health disciplines. The pandemic has reinforced the growing pragmatism of the past two decades, which again challenges the smaller liberal arts focused institutions, both by making them shift resources to professional programs and to compete harder to attract students from the larger, more comprehensive institutions. Add to this the general and long-term challenges facing Ontario’s northern universities, met largely by the recruitment of international students, and it is easy to see the makings of long-term transformations of the province’s post-secondary landscape. The current difficulties at Laurentian, therefore, are not particularly surprising, nor do they represent the final chapter in the financial and institutional reforms needed across Ontario and particularly in the North.

Academic Fields of Study, 2005-2021

Some Surprising Applications Data - HESA

Source: Higher Education Strategy Associates:, 27 January 2021.

The issues facing Laurentian University and the Université de l’Ontario français are much more than those driven by enrollments, finances and the effects of the pandemic, although all three will shape current policy making. The low level of prospective student interest in Université de l’Ontario français, creating an unfortunate situation where low enrollment starts to deter other applications, is critical and suggests a significant over-estimation of student and parental interest. Other contributors to this series of papers have written eloquently on the linguistic and cultural aspects of the impending decisions about LU and Université de l’Ontario français, and I can only indicate here my strong support for including such considerations in the establishment and funding of post-secondary institutions. The Government of Ontario has been supportive of the expansion of Indigenous-run and focused post-secondary services in recent years and the concerns and needs of the francophone population in Ontario warrants comparable attention. Complete societies treasure post-secondary institutions that allow young people and adult learners to study in culturally and linguistically comfortable environments, as much to show societal support for the strengthening of group values and priorities as for the practical educational and career opportunities.  

But it is here that promoters of new approaches to Laurentian University and Université de l’Ontario français and French educational opportunities face their most complicated challenges. First, Canadians have other French language universities ready at hand, both in Ontario (the small Université de Hearst, as well as the research-intensive University of Ottawa and Glendon College, the latter two of which are bilingual in their offerings) and in Québec (albeit at higher tuition fees). Arguably, Ontario’s francophone universities cannot match the full immersive French environment of Montreal, Québec, Sherbrooke or the other centres, although Ottawa/Hull comes close. Nor can they, save for the University of Ottawa, provide the comprehensive program offerings available at the larger Québec institutions. Laval University currently has 1,000 Canadian students from outside Québec and the University of Montréal has identified an even larger group of 7,000 Canadians from outside Québec. It is hard for Laurentian University to compete and even more difficult for Université de l’Ontario français to carve out a space in this competitive environment. It is equally hard to assert that francophone students do not have legitimate and high-quality Canadian options for French language instruction, although they may be a fair distance from home.  

Conceptually, there is no shortage of potential students for both Université de l’Ontario français and Laurentian University. Ontario’s large Franco-Ontarian population of well over 600,000 people could, on its own, support one or more freestanding and comprehensive universities. After all, the close to 250,000 French-speaking people in New Brunswick (one third of the province’s 750,000 people by government count) send a steady stream of students to the Université de Moncton, which has close to 5,000 students (For comparative purposes, Laurentian University has approximately 9,000 students, with a majority enrolled in English programs and courses). But many of the Franco-Ontarian students appear to choose to study in English language or bilingual programs despite the students being typically bilingual as is the case in New Brunswick. They, and their parents, do not necessarily accept the cultural-political imperative of studying in French, which is one of the most important issues to be addressed.

The situation facing graduates of French immersion programs is even less promising. French immersion high schools were set up as part of a national commitment to bilingualism, quickly becoming a program of preference for the professional and managerial classes in Canada. The system is large, producing close to 8,000 graduates in Ontario alone in 2019. Indeed, in that year close to 480,000 Canadian students enrolled in elementary and secondary French immersion programs, with fully 280,000 of those registered in Ontario. These students typically come from non-francophone backgrounds. They complete a substantial portion of their instruction in French but graduate with uneven French language capabilities. They do, however, represent a prime recruiting pool of francophone universities, both because of the prominent language of instruction and the strong academic track records of many of the graduates. While some of these students do enroll in Francophone or bilingual institutions – available data makes it difficult to discern 100% – most appear to pursue their advanced studies in English. This represents a lost opportunity for those intent on the creation of a truly bilingual Canada, but French immersion is not likely to be a strong foundation for a strong national French-language post-secondary system.

Source: Government of Ontario, Elementary and Secondary Education Survey (ESES), 2020

There is another, less well-known, pool of potential students: those educated in the Ontario and Canadian French language schools. All provinces and territories have French-language elementary and high schools, producing a set of graduates who are well-suited for French language universities. British Columbia, to use a distant example, has over 6,400 students enrolled in French language classes, with close to 500 students graduating from French high schools in the province each year. Saskatchewan has two French-language high schools, albeit with small graduating classes. These students, educated in French throughout high school would, if interested and of sufficient academic standing, be good recruits for Ontario’s French-language universities. The number moving across provinces, however, is likely small and largely focused on the more elite, research intensive universities, including the University of Ottawa. The simple point here – which does need to be addressed statistically on a national scale – is that the pursuit of French-language university options does not appear to be a high priority for graduates of either French immersion or French schools in Ontario.

While there is no numerical shortage of potential students for Ontario’s francophone institutions and programs, the reality is that the applications and enrollments continue to fall short of what is desired. The combination of Laurentian University’s financial woes and the convoluted impacts of the pandemic have created an intensely difficult environment for a careful and thoughtful evaluation of post-secondary prospects. Indeed, if there ever was a year for hunkering down behind institutional walls and waiting for the political and economic realities to unfold, it is probably 2021. But circumstances do not permit waiting. Governments and institutions will have to act, even precipitously, in the face of considerable uncertainty and real fiscal challenges. 

What does this say about the LU and Université de l’Ontario français situation and the prospects for major and significant reform? First, it highlights the serious financial difficulties across northern and small city universities and portends a future of potentially greater and more systematic change. Secondly, it emphasizes the numerous challenges facing the Government of Ontario during a time of a full-on budgetary crisis where health-care costs continue to trump post-secondary spending. The debate also highlights the legitimate, even urgent aspirations of the Franco-Ontarian community as they seek to strengthen cultural, linguistic and community connections. Money and student enrollments should not be the sole determinant of institutional and program offerings. But in the current environment, universities are ultimately driven by students’ decisions and their career and academic preferences. In the short term, options are defined by the availability of money – and with the effects of the pandemic hanging over Ontario and the country, the prospects here are far from promising. Finally, it is important for all participants to realize that French-language university instruction cannot be determined in a strict enrollment basis; instead, governments and university have to understand that linguistic and cultural programming is ultimately a decision about the culture, citizenship and linguistic values of the province.

All new universities have a “field of dreams” – build it and they will come – quality about them. And sometimes, as with the University of Northern British Columbia (opened in 1994) and the Ontario Tech University (opened in 2002), the students came in large enough numbers to justify the continuation of what have become fine universities. Université de l’Ontario français missed the enrollment mark, at least in the first instance, but it had less promising demographic and enrollment prospects from the outset. The combination of Université de l’Ontario français’s stumbles, accentuated by the pandemic, and Laurentian University’s financial issues unsurprisingly havs sparked discussions about a realignment. Various prospects have been floated, from connecting Université de l’Ontario français to Laurentian University in Sudbury, making the University of Sudbury a freestanding French-language institution, or separating LU’s French-language programs from its more dominant English offerings through some creative alignment. For cultural and linguistic groups, these are fine and even urgent options; one hopes that a successful compromise comes to the fore.

But as is often the case with universities, supporters inside and outside the campus typically ask only some of the questions and focus on answers that either protect the status quo or support a specific mandate. Enrollment, and therefore the long-term success and financial viability of the institution, is driven by a complex set of factors: student choice, program options, peer group actions, parental preference, career aspirations, perceived institutional status, the desire to stay in town/the desire to leave home, affordability, and others. Some students clearly attend universities for cultural or linguistic reasons, including at the growing number of Indigenous institutes and French-language colleges and universities across the country. But culture and language represent only one piece of a complex student choice puzzle.

The future of francophone university education in Canada will not ultimately be determined by the provincial legislature, short-term budgetary allocations or well-intentioned motions in university Senates. Instead, the decision rests with the match between institutional offerings and student choices, the latter strongly re-enforced by parental preferences. Governments and institutions can influence these decisions through public statements and financial incentives, but in the end thousands of individual and family choices matter the most. And it is this aspect – the hearts, minds and life aspirations of French-speaking students – that has attracted far too little attention in the current French language university debate in Ontario.

It appears that French immersion and French school graduates are not heading off, en masse, to French language institutions. Many that do go to such schools head to either bilingual institutions or Québec universities. Many other French-speaking students, for practical, career-oriented and personal reasons, prefer to study in English and to pursue programs available at English-language institutions. Creating the “carrot” of a French language institution works only if such a post-secondary option is high on the students’ priority list. That it does not appear to be a top priority is a sad and sombre development; perhaps more can be done to encourage these students to consider French-language options that do not include relocating to Québec.  

For now, however, Université de l’Ontario français and Laurentian University need to address their immediate challenges without assuming that a groundswell of French-speaking high school graduates will sweep to the rescue of French-language university programs in Canada. Indeed, promoters of French-language post-secondary education need to appreciate that acrimonious and public debate about institutional futures could dampen, rather than improve, student interest in Université de l’Ontario français and Laurentian University. Canada’s bilingual reality remains, as it always will, a work in progress, particularly outside Québec and especially in Ontario.  

Ken Coates is Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan campus.

Northern Policy Institute is an independent social and economic think tank based in Northern Ontario with offices in Thunder Bay and Sudbury.