If there is anything like a silver lining in the insolvency of Laurentian U., it is the birth of NOSM University.
Calling the creation of Canada’s first independent medical university “a silver lining” is not meant to downplay the terrible fallout from LU’s insolvency. What happened to Laurentian remains a dark day in the history of Greater Sudbury. That will not change.
If you will recall, on Feb. 1, 2021, Laurentian University informed the community that it was out of money and would not be able to meet its payroll by the end of that month, and as a result had filed for creditor protection and restructuring under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA).
You can read an excellent longform report from Sudbury.com education reporter Heidi Ulrichsen on the topic here if you want to get caught up on all the wrinkles in the story.
More than a year later, the university’s restructuring is still underway, with the courts extending creditor protection earlier this year until May 31.
It was not only an unprecedented move for a Canadian post-secondary institution, it was the first time a publicly funded body in Canada had, in effect, filed for bankruptcy.
Laurentian will go on, but it will do so without 58 undergraduate and 11 graduate programs, and without 110 faculty members and 41 staff, all of whom lost their livelihoods as part of the CCAA process.
Alex Usher, owner of Higher Education Strategy Associates and a post-secondary education consultant, told Sudbury.com that in his view, it will take LU a generation to build itself back into the institution it was in 2019.
And while none of the above is good news, there is a bright spot to be had in the Laurentian insolvency and that is the creation of NOSM University.
Northern Ontario’s only medical school was born out of a common problem in the North: a dire shortage of doctors. Years of lobbying by northern communities for the province to do something to address the lack of physicians finally bore fruit when, in 2002, NOSM opened, operating under the umbrella of Lakehead University and Laurentian University with campuses at both institutions.
In the 20 years since, 780 medical doctor graduates and 692 residents have completed studies at NOSM, with an estimated 89 per cent of those who completed residencies in the North choosing to stay and practice in the North. It is an example of a grassroots initiative adopted by government that actually did what it was supposed to do — a rare occurrence to be sure.
Despite this success though, Northern Ontario is estimated to need some 300 physicians just to meet the current need for doctors, let alone future needs.
And this is why we are calling the unfettering of NOSM from Laurentian and Lakehead a silver lining.
Already, NOSM U has borne fruit with the announcement by the province in March that it was boosting enrollment at the school by 30 students, meaning instead of an intake of 64 future doctors, the standalone med school could intake 94. Instead of taking on 62 medical residents, NOSM U can take on 103, and remember, nearly 90 per cent of those will likely stay to practice here.
This is fantastic news for the rural and remote Northern Ontario communities that continue to lack sufficient access to medical care.
Improving that access in the North is imperative. Not only is there an issue of access (for instance, how can a community with only one or two doctors possibly offer reliable emergency care?), but residents of Northern Ontario have generally poorer health than the rest of the province.
A 2017 report from Health Quality Ontario highlighted several important facts when considering the health of Northerners. The life expectancy in the North is nearly three years less than it is for people in the South. Northerners are more likely to die prematurely, before the age of 75, from suicide, circulatory disease and respiratory disease, and we live with more multiple chronic conditions than do our southern Ontario counterparts.
We are sicker and live shorter lives. There is no reason to think the situation has improved in the five years since that report was written.
We agree with Dr. Sarita Verma, NOSM U’s dean and vice-chancellor: This is truly historic and profound for a region of the province that often feels shortchanged by Queen’s Park. For the residents of many communities in the North, NOSM U is literally lifesaving.
If there is one dark spot in the silver lining that is Northern Ontario’s medical university, it is financial. Verma said last week about half of the school’s endowment is in “grave danger” because it is tied up in Laurentian’s insolvency and in Lakehead’s finances. Some $14- to $15 million in NOSM endowments were directed to LU before it declared insolvency and NOSM U is fighting to get it back.
As challenged an institution as it is, Laurentian cannot stiff NOSM on what it is owed. The university could certainly use that money given its financial challenges, but the residents of the North’s many rural and remote communities, people who have lived for decades with insufficient access to medical care, could definitely use it more.
Sudbury.com's editorial opinion is determined by an editorial board made up of senior staff.