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Beneath the surface

When it comes to universities offering French-language programs outside Quebec, Laurentian’s problems are just the tip of the iceberg.

BY ÉMILE BÉRUBÉ-LUPIEN & PASCALE CASTONGUAY | OCT 13 2021

By last spring, Laurentian University’s financial difficulties were an open secret in the Sudbury community. Even so, on April 12, theatre student Maxime Cayouette was preparing for an upcoming exam, like most students at that time of year, when he learned that his program was going to be eliminated. His professor had just received confirmation that she and many of her colleagues would be losing their jobs in a few weeks, and she informed her students that the exam wasn’t going to be given after all. It was now impossible for him to finish the two and a half years remaining in his program and earn his degree as he had hoped.

Far from being an isolated case, Mr. Cayouette was one of about 160 students whose future was badly shaken when Laurentian asked for creditor protection in early 2021 — a restructuring process that is still ongoing. The outcome won’t be known until January 31, 2022.

Over the past few months, Laurentian has also unilaterally terminated its federation agreement with the University of Sudbury, Thorneloe University, and Huntington University. Shortly thereafter, Université de Hearst became a standalone university. The U of Sudbury, which was founded by Jesuits in 1913, adopted a resolution to officially break its ties with the Catholic Church and affirm its desire to be a fully francophone institution. In addition, it wants to acquire all French-language programs still currently being offered by Laurentian. As it was still considered a denominational university until Sept. 14, the U of Sudbury was unable to obtain funding from the provincial government in time to welcome any students in fall 2021.

While the extent of Laurentian’s financial problems took the entire university community by surprise, other universities across the country offering programs in French have since opened up about their own precarious financial situations. Université de Moncton and Saint Paul University have spoken candidly about their concerns for their continued existence as educational institutions. Those worries are also shared by the University of Alberta’s Campus Saint-Jean, whose underfunding has led the Association canadienne-française de l’Alberta (ACFA) to sue Alberta’s provincial government and the U of A — a suit that has not yet been resolved.

Stéphanie Chouinard, a political scientist and associate professor at the Royal Military College of Canada and Queen’s University has been keeping tabs on all of these issues, and sees a difference between what happened at Laurentian and the threat facing other educational institutions. “It’s important to make a distinction between institutions that have suffered from chronic underfunding and institutions that have made bad choices, as in the case of Laurentian.”

While many stakeholders in higher ed agree on the factors that put these institutions in such a fragile situation, the Association des collèges et universités de la francophonie canadienne (ACUFC) and the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne want to get to the bottom of things. To that end, they created the États généraux sur le postsecondaire en contexte francophone minoritaire au Canada (National Dialogue on postsecondary education in francophone minority context in Canada). This consultation process, which will continue through March 2022, seeks not only to identify current challenges, but also to find solutions to ensure the survival of francophone institutions.

“[The National Dialogue] isn’t a self-contained activity with a clear start and end date, but it will be the start of something else: a concrete action plan to deal with the many deep issues we face,” explains Lynn Brouillette, president and CEO of the ACUFC.

Ms. Brouillette bluntly acknowledges that “one of the issues is the question of funding — that’s not news to anyone.” The mere act of “operating in French” incurs additional costs, a situation that reflects these institutions’ more challenging mandate in language minority contexts. “Institutions need to make extra efforts to provide programs in French along with the associated services for students from francophone school districts, immersion students and international students all at once. When you have students coming in from two different language systems, it requires a lot more services,” she notes.

The recruitment dilemma

This failure to understand the unique challenges of offering programs in French is also at the heart of the ACFA’s lawsuit against the government of Alberta and the U of A. Funding for Campus Saint-Jean — which has two branches, the Faculté Saint-Jean (offering undergraduate and graduate programs) and the Centre collégial de l’Alberta — is received by the U of A through the Campus Alberta Grant. Once the U of A receives the funds, they are distributed across all faculties. The university evaluates each faculty’s needs in terms of their “Full Load Equivalent.” These needs are used to determine a quota for each faculty, and the corresponding share of the grant is passed on to each one accordingly. “Most if not all of the faculties generally stay pretty close to that quota,” explains Pierre-Yves Mocquais, dean of Campus Saint-Jean.

“They think it’s completely insane. But that’s just another aspect of the lack of understanding between the anglophone majority and the francophone minority. It’s a typical attitude between a majority and a minority group.”

However , for the past five years or so, the quota assigned to Campus Saint-Jean has been significantly lower than the number of students who actually study there. Dr. Mocquais estimates that the student population at Campus Saint-Jean has been 1.5 to two times the official quota in recent years. This discrepancy is due to Campus Saint-Jean’s commitment to accepting all students who want to study in French, as long as they meet the requirements. “Otherwise, they don’t know where else to go,” says the dean, noting the limited range of options for university programs in French in Western Canada.

“I’ve always felt that we have a responsibility to meet that demand,” he explains. That same sense of duty is shared by the teaching and administrative staff: “The decision to accept more students than [the threshold defined by] our quota was made as a group,” despite its impact on Campus Saint-Jean’s budget. Colleagues at the U of A have struggled to understand this decision. “They think it’s completely insane. But that’s just another aspect of the lack of understanding between the anglophone majority and the francophone minority. It’s a typical attitude between a majority and a minority group.”

While Campus Saint-Jean has seen its financial options tightening as it accepts more students, Denis Prud’homme, rector and vice-chancellor of Université de Moncton, has the opposite concern. For him, the population decline currently affecting New Brunswick complicates the equation. With the total number of high school graduates shrinking by about two per cent each year for the past 10 years, it’s harder and harder for U de Moncton to take in the same number of students, even if it continues to attract the same proportion of graduates. “About 70 per cent of our students come from New Brunswick,” so these changes in the number of graduates have a direct impact on the number of students attending the university.

The combination of this reality and a certain degree of stagnation in funding from the provincial government has turned balancing the budget into a challenging exercise. “In our case, the average increase [in our provincial funding] over the past 10 years has been about 0.7 per cent. So, our ability to increase revenue is decreasing, but our expenses have been increasing due to inflation, salaries, and so on,” explains Dr. Prud’homme, noting that U de Moncton has had to cut one per cent from every budget item every year for the last decade.

In light of these circumstances, it’s understandable that francophone educational institutions in language minority contexts have been calling on the federal government to increase the funding it provides to them under Part VII of the Official Languages Act, in which Ottawa commits to “enhancing the vitality of the English and French linguistic minority communities in Canada and supporting and assisting their development.”

In the most recent federal budget, the government had announced an investment of $121.3 million over three years for postsecondary education being offered in the minority language. On Aug. 11, Mélanie Joly, the minister of official languages, revealed the broad outlines of this investment. As a general rule, federal funds relating to official languages come with a funds-sharing clause stipulating that the money will only become accessible if the provincial government invests an equivalent amount. For this new funding, the federal government made an exception to this rule by agreeing to pay 95 per cent of the total amount required for the first year of the project, 75 per cent in the second year, and 50 per cent for the third year.

While many observers are delighted with this commitment from the federal government, Dr. Prud’homme is more skeptical about the reach of this project-by-project approach to funding. “I’m not sure that the tool the federal government has developed for us is the best one to keep postsecondary institutions afloat. What we really need is core funding that’s permanent, predictable, and indexed to the cost of living,” he argues.

Interestingly, during the recent election campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went to Sudbury and promised that if he was re-elected, he would solidify this investment to $80 million per year.

The delicate question of Bill 96

In any case, the federal government’s commitment to providing funds doesn’t mean that these institutions will have nothing but smooth sailing ahead. Article 29.6 of Bill 96, currently making its way through Quebec’s National Assembly, could have an impact on universities in other provinces that offer French programs. Spearheaded by Simon Jolin-Barrette, the provincial minister of justice and minister responsible for the French language, the bill would allow francophone students from elsewhere in Canada to pay the same tuition rates as students from Quebec. To take advantage of this option, their chosen program would have to be taught in French and be unavailable in the student’s home province. Currently, a student born outside the province who wants to study at a Quebec university has to pay $185.45 more per credit than Quebec students, for whom the price is set at $90.84 — the equivalent of $5,563.50 more for a year of full-time studies. Introduced in May 2021, the bill was submitted this fall for public consultation, but will probably die due to Quebec premier, François Legault, wanting to prorogue the Assemblée nationale. The bill could come back, but only if all MNAs (members of the Assemblée nationale) agree, which is how the Quebec government would like it to play out. Dr. Chouinard believes that while the Quebec government’s intentions are laudable, universities in the rest of Canada may have concerns.

“We know that the exodus of young francophones is a real issue, whether it’s to Quebec or to Ottawa to work for the federal government.”

She cites the example of U de Moncton, whose mandate goes beyond the province of New Brunswick in welcoming students from Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador as well. Dr. Chouinard, who grew up in Labrador and got her bachelor’s degree from U de Moncton, can speak to this from personal experience: “For me, as a native of Newfoundland and Labrador, if Université Laval had given me the option to go and study there for the same tuition as a student from Quebec… I’m a lot less sure that [I would have studied] at Université de Moncton.”

She also notes that some provinces might be worried that their students will stay in Quebec after completing their studies and never come back. “We know that the exodus of young francophones is a real issue, whether it’s to Quebec or to Ottawa to work for the federal government,” says Dr. Chouinard. “There’s a concern that if a young francophone decides to go to Quebec because their preferred program isn’t offered in their community, they may not come back.”

In a letter to Minister Jolin-Barrette and Sonia Lebel, Quebec’s minister responsible for Canadian relations and the Canadian francophonie, the ACUFC made the same points. ACUFC president Lynn Brouillette expressed her fear that “the geographical reference mentioned in the article [of Bill 96] could undermine the vitality of francophone communities in language minority settings and the development of postsecondary institutions in francophone minority contexts.”

While Quebec is undeniably an attractive destination for French speakers, some francophones who grew up in other Canadian provinces still prefer to have access to high-quality French programs closer to home.

Currently taking a year off of his studies to complete a contract as a cultural event moderator for a francophone school district, Maxime Cayouette doesn’t hesitate for a second when asked: If the University of Sudbury got the green light to offer a theatre program in French, that’s where he would continue his studies. “Sudbury needs artists too. If the theatre program gets reincarnated, I want it to stay alive,” says Mr. Cayouette, who still holds out hope that the U of Sudbury will be able to revive the program. It’s clear that whether or not that happens will depend on how much funding the institution can pull together to resume its activities.

PUBLISHED BY
Émile Bérubé-Lupien & Pascale Castonguay
Émile Bérubé-Lupien was the francophone intern for University Affairs from January to September 2021. Pascale Castonguay is the francophone writer/reviser for University Affairs.
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  1. Pierre-Yves Mocquais / October 13, 2021 at 15:20

    Merci, thank you for an excellent and balanced article.

  2. David Macdonald / October 13, 2021 at 16:17

    Please note that Laurentian did not terminate its federation agreement with l’université d’Hearst. Hearst was granted independence by the Ontario government along with the Northern Ontario School of Medicine. The third university de-federated by Laurentian was Thorneloe University.

    • Pascale Castonguay / October 14, 2021 at 12:01

      Thank you for flagging it, the story has been updated.