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Opinion: Laurentian president needs to get serious about preserving French-language education

The stats don’t support LU president Dr. Robert Haché’s contention the university ‘is still strong’ and it’s time for the university administration to realize this and act accordingly, says Carol Jolin, president of the Assemblée de la francophonie de l’Ontario 

Having suffered the largest loss of students in its history, Laurentian University’s president and vice-chancellor boasts that he has “good news” to share. 

“It is incredibly encouraging to see that the demand for Laurentian University is still strong and signals that we continue to be an important part of Ontario’s post-secondary system and a critical institution supporting the growth of northern Ontario,” wrote Dr. Robert Haché recently. 

That means Haché proudly celebrates these facts:

  • Individual student registrations are down by 13.7 per cent, namely 1,264 students; 
  • Full-time equivalent student (FTE) registrations are down by 15.1 per cent, namely 1,075 FTE.
  • The student population has regressed to its 2003 level, namely 5,851.8 FTE.
  • Laurentian has therefore lost $7.5 million in tuition fees this year and the missing cohort will result in losses over four years totalling $30 million. 
  • Laurentian continues to pay astronomical fees, in the order of many tens of millions of dollars, on court-supervised financial restructuring procedures and hiring outside firms from Toronto that know little about Franco-Ontarian realities or about Northern Ontario. 
  • The loss of students means that the institution will lose $30,000 in tuition fees plus salary grants per lost student, totalling $32 million this year and more than $100 million over the next four years. 
  • Laurentian now has 32.9-per-cent fewer new students, 32 per cent of whom would have been secondary school graduates. This means that Laurentian is actively fuelling regional outmigration and the assimilation of young Francophones.
  • Laurentian’s French-language study programs that are still in place have seen their registration numbers drop by 17.6 per cent.

Haché sees his institution as “succeeding” despite this major downturn in its student population. Yet somehow, he can still believe that transferring its French-language programs to Université de Sudbury would be fatal to his institution. 

Of course, he does not attempt to prove that. But, still, how can someone simultaneously find reasons to take heart while Laurentian loses 15 per cent of its students, and then warn that the transfer of Francophone programs would be a death blow to his insolvent institution? 

The president’s argument is not credible. It would be, in fact, very possible for Laurentian to become financially viable by adapting to its true mandate, that of an English-language institution. 

After all, hasn’t Laurentian University’s administration told its personnel repeatedly over the past 20 years that the institution’s French-language programming is a costly burden, despite the sizable grants received for that programming?

Nonetheless, Laurentian’s president has chosen to ignore a partnership proposal that Université de Sudbury put forward with the aim of submitting a joint funding request to the federal government’s complementary funding in education program, a strategy that could potentially bring financial assistance to both institutions. 

I want to be especially clear on this point: the Franco-Ontarian community wants nothing more than a strong Laurentian University for English-language programming alongside the Université de Sudbury for French-language programming. 

We are encouraging Laurentian University and Université de Sudbury to find common ground that will benefit both parties. We are encouraging partnerships between the two institutions that would allow Anglophone students to benefit from courses taught in French. Moreover, both institutions will share the same campus. What Francophones are demanding is their right to control their educational programming.

Haché, and Laurentian University’s administrators, are aware that the members of the Assemblée de la francophonie de l’Ontario firmly expressed two requests and adopted a resolution at its annual general meeting on Oct. 30. One of those requests is that Laurentian University negotiate in good faith an agreement with Université of Sudbury to ensure a transition to governance of French-language post-secondary education in Ontario’s mid-north by, for and with Francophones. 

Université de Sudbury has no debt and currently functions normally, thanks to its history of good governance. Université de Sudbury is a financially responsible institution. 

Dr. Haché, will you heed the call of the Franco-Ontarian community?

Dr. Haché, will you stop working against the Franco-Ontarian community and thwarting its attempts to obtain governance of its institutions? 

Dr. Haché, will you do the right thing?

Carol Jolin is president of the Assemblée de la francophonie de l’Ontario.