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Romano: Students should be ‘comfortable to continue their studies at Laurentian’

As LU undergoes insolvency proceedings, Minister of Colleges and Universities says province ‘is committed to Laurentian University’
The "bowling alley" area of Laurentian University is seen here in 2019. (File)

Students at Laurentian University should be “comfortable to continue their studies at Laurentian” as the university faces a financial crisis, said Minister of Colleges and Universities Ross Romano.

The minister was asked about the situation at Laurentian following a March 10 Zoom press conference where he announced $39.5 million to create up to 8,000 paid research internships through Mitacs, an organization that builds partnerships between education and industry.

It’s the time of year when students are deciding which post-secondary institution to attend, and Romano was asked by a Toronto Star reporter if the province was concerned about enrolment at Laurentian this fall, given its insolvency.

He was also asked what he was doing or could be doing “so that students know it’s safe and stable to attend there.”

Romano didn’t specifically address the issue of prospective students, but did say “students at Laurentian should feel comfortable to continue their studies at Laurentian, because our government is committed to Laurentian University.

“It’s the first university in Northern Ontario, it’s the largest university in Northern Ontario, and it’s an exceptionally important university in Ontario, period.”

Laurentian University is currently undergoing restructuring under the Companies Creditors’ Arrangement Act (CCAA) after declaring Feb. 1 it is insolvent. The university has until April 30 to come up with a restructuring plan.

For its part, the province has appointed Alan Harrison, who has 40 years of experience working in post-secondary schools, as its adviser. A report is expected this spring, but the province has not said if the final report will be made public.

Romano, who’s also the MPP for Sault Ste. Marie, has been criticized by many connected to the Laurentian University community for not doing enough to support Laurentian as it undergoes insolvency proceedings.

The politician said Wednesday that the province is “doing everything in our power to support our students. I think we can all support our students by stressing the importance that our students will not be impacted by what is occurring at Laurentian University.

“This is something that is in the courts, and unfortunately I can’t get into any details of what is happening in the court proceeding at this time.”

Romano again dodged the specifics of the question when he was asked by if the province bears some of the responsibility for Laurentian’s financial crisis, given some of its policy decisions.

That includes requiring universities to cut tuition by 10 per cent three years ago, followed by tuition fee freezes, a situation that Laurentian says contributed to its financial problems.

Romano pointed to a number of investments the province has made in post-secondary education.

“So far over the course of this COVID-19 pandemic alone, the investments that our government has made in the post-secondary sector have been substantial,” Romano said.

“We got right out of the gate immediately into the COVID-19 pandemic with $25 million in relief that was put out throughout the entirety of our sector. Thereafter we were able to support our sector with a return-to-school plan and reopening plans.

“We have made substantial investments in the sector and capital infrastructure, to the tune of $466 million, which is the largest capital investment throughout the sector in quite some time.”

Romano was also asked by the Toronto Star if the province plans on providing aid to the Ontario post-secondary sector in general.

This is following a recent report by the Council of Ontario Universities that says the province’s universities are facing a shortfall of about half a billion dollars this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In response, Romano repeated some of the aforementioned funding that the province has provided to the post-secondary sector.

“I do want to stress that the situation at Laurentian University, we know from the information we have, was not exacerbated by COVID-19, and was not a result of COVID-19, but something that was going on for many, many years prior to that,” he said.

“The situation we have is one that we continue to monitor.” asked Romano if, given Laurentian University’s financial problems, the province is going to put in place more financial oversight for Ontario universities.

“That is something we are reviewing right now so we can have a better line of sight when things of this nature arise, if they were to arise in the future,” Romano said.

“You heard me say before, universities are autonomous institutions. They have their own legislation and their own independence.

“It is important that we learn how to have more information in the future about those institutions. That is something we are continually monitoring and working with individuals like Dr. Alan Harrison, who is our special investigator who has been appointed by our ministry to review the Laurentian situation.”