Funding decision won’t deter Franco-Ontario university
Three of the campuses were satellite locations for larger universities (York, Wilfrid Laurier and Ryerson universities) and were designed to support the large number of college-age students in the Greater Toronto Area. The loss of these campuses will be felt deeply, particularly in the cities that planned to host them.
The fourth campus, however, is a brand-new university, designed and governed by Ontario’s Francophone population. The Université de l'Ontario Français (UOF) fills a noticeable gap by providing French-language degrees using an interdisciplinary approach that tackles current global issues.
While Ontario currently has some bilingual universities or French campuses affiliated with major institutions (Hearst, Laurentian, Ottawa and Sudbury), the UOF would be the first autonomous Francophone institution governed by Franco-Ontarians.
This type of university is in high demand in Toronto and although the UOF has only existed as a legal entity for 12 months, it already has a governing board, president and academic journal. Plans are underway to enrol the first cohort of students in September 2020.
Since 15 November 2018, when Premier Ford cancelled the funding for the new UOF, there has been a public outcry. Petitions, editorials and public statements have been released, with the Assemblée de la francophonie de l'Ontario leading the charge.
Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed his disappointment at the cancellation, speaking of governments’ “responsibility” to support minority groups.
Premier Ford’s funding cuts also led one elected politician, Amanda Simard, to withdraw from the Progressive Conservative political party and work as an independent member in order to support her Franco-Ontario constituents. Most critics point to the waste of resources and energy that has already been spent over the past two years in the planning stages of the project.
Ontario is home to Canada’s second-largest Francophone population, following the province of Quebec. There are currently 600,000 Franco-Ontarians living in the province and a further 1.5 million bilingual (French-English) residents. Franco-Ontarians made their first formal request for a French-language university in the 1970s, but little action was seen.
In 2014 a provincial summit was held on the general state of the French-language in post-secondary education and again a proposal for a Francophone university was presented. This time the proposal was taken seriously, as French is becoming valued, not only for its historic contributions in Canada, but for the competitive advantage of bilingualism in the global economy.
In May 2015, Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) France Gélinas proposed a legislative bill that would create the new university and after two years of committee research, Ontario’s parliament passed the Université de l'Ontario français Act on 14 December 2017.
This act legally established the UOF as a university in the province of Ontario and over the past year, the planning council has actively worked to put in place the mission, programmes and senior administration of the university.
The location was set to be in Toronto, since that city is the first settlement location for many French-speaking immigrants and Toronto’s demand for K-12 French education has risen dramatically over the past decade.
The UOF planning council had also designed the institution with strategic partnerships at its core. Students would benefit from connections with Francophone institutions around the world, and the institution would share facilities with Collège Boréal and the TFO media group.
Perhaps the most innovative aspect is the proposed degree structure. Rather than traditional, discipline-based departments, students would be connected to one of four transdisciplinary programmes revolving around current global issues including: human plurality; urban environments; global economy; and digital cultures.
Courses, modules, workshops and seminars would be based on collaborative work around themes where students have to rely on a variety of disciplines. Finally, the pedagogy would be based on inductive, discovery approaches that prioritise experiential learning. Internships and co-op courses would also be at the core of students’ experience.
Even though Premier Ford has cancelled its funding, the UOF still remains a legal entity due to the legislative act that brought it into existence. This reality has provided a unique advocacy platform for those who are committed to keeping UOF alive. The institution may have no funding at the moment, but it still exists, with people and programmes under its auspices.
Presently, the planning council is archiving all their activities from the past two years. They will keep these ready to resume activities when funding becomes available in the future.
In the meantime, the search for funding has taken advocates to the federal government. Since post-secondary education is under the jurisdiction of the provinces in Canada, the federal government has no official oversight of the funding battle around this institution.
However, Prime Minister Trudeau’s commitment to minority groups give advocates hope that some funding may be found until Ontario once again commits to funding new campuses – even if that is four years and one election away.
Grace Karram Stephenson is a post-doctoral fellow in the department of leadership, higher and adult education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Canada. Olivier Bégin-Caouette is assistant professor of comparative higher education at Université de Montréal. He has also worked as a consultant for the technical implementation committee of the Université de l'Ontario Français (UOF).