On Monday, the Government of Ontario released a proposal for a francophone university in Ontario, saying, effectively, “it’s about time we had one”. This came as a surprise to many, who wondered “well, what about University of Ottawa, Laurentian University and Glendon College?”
But of course, none of these are truly francophone. Well, U of O is in theory but it was swamped by anglophones long ago and now does a majority of its teaching in English. Laurentian was from its founding a bilingual university rather than a francophone one, but in practice it has not always lived up to the ideal, much to the irritation of some of its francophone staff. And Glendon – well, Glendon’s a francophone college, but it’s part of York University, which is about as anglo as it gets.
Where this new institution is supposed to be different is that it will teach only in French, And it will be governed entirely by francophones. Which, to the francophone community, makes quite a difference. And with over half a million francophones in the province, it’s not difficult to argue that maybe such an institution exist. But the question is: will students actually attend? Whatever the rationale for such an institution, can it compete with Ottawa/Laurentian/Glendon – let alone anglophone institutions?
Well, here’s where it gets tricky. The recommendation in the report suggests that the new institution be set up in Toronto, which I think strikes many people as odd because the city is not exactly known as a francophone hub. Supporters of the ideas can turn around and note that over a third of the province’s francophone population lives in Central and southern Ontario. That said, there aren’t many employers in the region that would put much of a premium on French education, which may limit its attractiveness to students in the area.
Perhaps more to the point: if there were significant demand for French education in the city, you kind of think that either Laurentian or Ottawa would have met it by delivering programs there. The fact that they haven’t may suggest that predictions of thousands of students flocking to a new institution with no track record may be based more in hope than reality.
(The report itself suggests 1,000 FTE students by 2023-2024 and 2,220 by 2030. This is pretty much a fantasy, and I suspect it owes at least something to a piece of market research which was conducted on the idea about four years ago which was – and I am not exaggerating here – the actual worst piece of social science I have ever seen. Among many other data atrocities – bar graphs adding up to over 100%, that kind of thing – it calculated potential attendance at a new university by asking students in francophone high schools in south-central Ontario if they wanted to go to university in French but never probed about alternatives to a new university such as Laurentian, Ottawa and Glendon. SMH, as the kids say.)
Back in the early 1990s, there was an attempt to provide French-language college-level programming in Toronto, through a new institution called College de Grand Lacs. It failed through lack of enrolments within about five years, with Collège Boréale eventually coming in to pick up the pieces. That’s not to say this institution will necessarily suffer the same fate; but it’s not a great precedent and probably more consideration should have been given to it in the report itself.
Now low enrolments aren’t necessarily a barrier to creating and maintaining a minority language institution. It’s really a question of how much you want to pay and what kind of programs you expect to support. Could Toronto support something like Nova Scotia’s Université Ste. Anne or Manitoba’s Université St. Boniface? Almost certainly, though getting up to the latter’s status might take more time than the report suggests (getting students to go to new universities is hard– no one wants to be a guinea pig). And if that’s the ambition, then it’s probably do-able.
But if the ambition is something more Moncton than Manitoba, then that probably won’t fly. Like it or not, Laurentian and Ottawa will be competing for these same students: and that’s a lot of fish in a not-terribly large pond. Bottom line: this is a manageable project if ambitions are small, but the greater the ambition, the riskier this idea becomes.