Higher Education Strategy Associates

A Francophone University for Ontario?

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.

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7 Responses to A Francophone University for Ontario?

  1. Gregoire Belland says:

    One example that was not looked at in the piece was the model of Campus Saint Jean at the Uof A in Edmonton It is very successful in my estimation having gone there many years ago. The article also fails to mention the needs for a vibrant Franciphone community to support the institution the francophone community to support the institution culturally and job opportunities. The francophone community in Edmonton supports the campus thru a La Cite the Franco cultural centre. Accès Emp’oie an Employment center. And many other organization public and private tha help sustain the Campus Saint Jean. I think model is worth a look. Just sayin
    Gregoire Belland. 510-635-6700

    • Glenn Keeler says:

      Alex and Gregoire,

      I am also an alum from Campus St Jean — or, as it was when I attended, Faculté St Jean (and that was a relatively new name, as it had been College St Jean just before that). And I think it is a great model, particularly as they have collaborated with the wider community to build a francophone area in Edmonton.

      A key differentiator from the Toronto proposal is that this is not a standalone university but rather a part of the University of Alberta. Having that organizational and financial underpinning is a key to its success. There was little risk for a student in attending something that is part of the U of A, and students had access to all the services of the main campus.

      Aside from the existing, established competitors in Ontario, having to build an institution from scratch is a pretty daunting task and I think makes the current Toronto proposal unlikely to succeed. If the location were in more dominantly francophone areas, or if it was attached to an existing institution (at least initially) this would have a better chance of success.

      • Alex Usher says:

        Right. The problem is that affiliating to an existing institution defeats the political purpose of the project; sticking it too close to Ottawa or Laurentian puts it in closer direct competition for students, which it is not sure it can win. More or less.

  2. Charles Reeve says:

    A question I keep having is, just in regard to this new project being announced as Ontario’s first Francophone university, is: what about l’Universite de Hearst? Or does it not count because of its association with Laurentian?

    In terms of demand, it’s an interesting point. Certainly in terms of the independent school board here in Toronto that governs the handful of francophone grade schools (Trudeau, Gabrielle-Roy, etc.), the issue is that they can’t meet demand. However, it’s not clear to me if that’s down to a growing francophone population in Toronto, or because of an influx of anglophone families interested in promoting bilingualism in their kids (I’m among the latter).

    Either way, though, the question remains as to whether this indicates enough demand to support a francophone university in Toronto, especially if, as you say, the goal is a full-fledged, free-standing institution. And in either case, it still begs the questions of why the Ministry wouldn’t just take steps to support returning Ottawa, Laurentian or Glendon to their francophone roots. Why is that not the most cost-efficient plan, and thus the one most likely to succeed?

    • Alex Usher says:

      At K-6 level viamonde is just playing a numbers game and attracting bright anglophone kids (or more to their point their parents) who want what is effectively a private school experience in the public system (and I can say that because my kid is at Trudeau). And in 7-12 I think numbers are increasing – slowly – because the # of francophones is increasing significantly in Toronto due to immigration from Europe and Africa (at least if the grad photos in the hallway at College Francais are anything to go by). But, to be blunt, I’m pretty sure those parents didn’t immigrate to have their kids study PSE in French, so I suspect they won’t have a political attachment to a project like this the way the (for lack of a better term) franco-ontariens de souche do.

      There’s no way you could turn either Ottawa or Laurentian into purely francophone schools; they’re both over 2/3 english in terms of enrolments. I think in theory one could imagine severing Glendon from York and making it standalone but York would need to agree and I expect their answer would be non. Besides, one shouldn’t ignore the political aspect of this – it’s a projet communautaire. And for that purpose, building something new is much better than getting something recycled.

  3. David Trick says:

    Glendon is a bilingual campus. It is not solely francophone. To be eligible to graduate, all students must complete a course in their second language at the 2nd-year level.

    As of February 2014, 427 (16%) of Glendon’s 2,693 undergraduate students said that French was their “first language”. The percentage might be a bit higher if data were available using the “Inclusive Definition of Francophone” (IDF) adopted by the Ontario Ministry of Francophone Affairs. Either way, making Glendon an all-francophone campus would present the enrolment problems that Alex describes: it would be hard to achieve 1,000 students. The infrastructure at Glendon can accommodate roughly 3,000 students, so there would be a lot of vacant space.

    As an alum, I can confirm that making the Glendon campus into a francophone university would be highly controversial.

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