Laurentian University, a major centre of higher learning in Ontario’s North, has filed for creditor protection amid the financial strain of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Despite our best efforts over the last year, Laurentian is insolvent," the school's president and vice-chancellor Robert Haché said in a statement. "This is a problem that can and will be addressed if all stakeholders work together to implement a vision for Laurentian that includes more financially sustainable operations."
It will now take about three months to create a restructured framework with the help of Ernst and Young, the court-appointed monitor of the proceedings, and existing operations will continue as normal in the interim, he said.
Haché blamed a number of factors for the school's troubles, including a history of recurring deficits and declining demographics, the 2019 closure of its Barrie campus and tuition fee cut ordered by the provincial government and then finally the global pandemic.
Ross Romano, the Progressive Conservatives’ minister for colleges and universities and MPP for Sault Ste. Marie stated that province has appointed Dr. Alan Harrison, former Provost of Queen’s University as a special advisor to advise on options to support Laurentian University's path to return to financial sustainability.
“The government will be exploring its options, which could include introducing legislation to ensure the province has greater oversight of university finances and to better protect the interest of students and Ontario taxpayers,” Romano said in a statement.
Romano had been in daily conversation with institutions to discuss short-term relief and the path to vital sustainability in the early days of the pandemic, a spokesperson said at the time.
Critics say tertiary education in the province has seen a steady erosion of public funding over several decades, leading many schools to lean heavily on enrolments from international students to balance budgets.
Tuition fees paid by international students can range between four and six times what domestic students pay.
That trend continued in 2019, when the current government ordered a 10 percent reduction in domestic tuition fees that removed $440 million from the province's higher education system ($360 million from universities and $80 million from colleges).
With the pandemic curtailing movement across borders and gatherings on campus, schools now face the need to move as much curriculum online as possible while hoping students, especially those from abroad, don’t choose to drop out.
The impact of COVID-19 could be “calamitous” for some small colleges, one industry participant told Canada’s National Observer in September.
Story by Morgan Sharp, The National Observer for the Local Journalism Initiative