On Feb. 1, students and faculty at Laurentian University were sent an email by university administration stating that the school had just been forced to declare insolvency—a first for a public sector university in Canada.
Despite initially being told that students needn’t worry about being able to complete their degrees as expected, the university has since decided to axe 69 distinct programs, many of which are French-language programs. The programming cuts include the only French-language midwifery program in the province, as well as other important programs with Indigenous content. This entails job cuts as well, including almost 100 faculty receiving layoff notices. The university administration is hiding behind the provisions of the insolvency process to avoid paying severance, pension, and health-care benefits towards former employees.
How did Laurentian get here?
Despite efforts by some bourgeois media outlets to pin the lion’s share of the blame on financial mismanagement by the administration, the real culprit is the same decades-long campaign of austerity and underfunding of public sector institutions that has paved the way for the explosive growth of the coronavirus in the province of Ontario. This austerity campaign has been overseen by both parties of big business, the Liberals and Conservatives.
The decrease in funding has caused universities and colleges across the country to rely on public-private partnerships, casualization of the workforce, and extortionate international student rates in order to plug funding gaps. All this has generated more pressure on colleges and universities to conform to the profit motive.
The final blow to Laurentian, pushing it over the edge, came in the form of a 10 per cent rate reduction to the Tuition Free Framework by the Ford Conservatives in 2019 without replacement funding. By the end of 2019, Laurentian University had projected a debt in excess of $10 million for the 2020-2021 academic year alone, bringing its total debt in excess of $100 million.
With its accounts in the red, Laurentian administration got its largest staff union to re-open their collective agreement and change a 1.5 per cent wage increase slated for 2021 into a one per cent wage cut, as well as agree to go without pay for six days a year.
And while the tops of the university issued their distress call to the provincial government, they largely sat on their hands in inaction. For Laurentian, Conservative Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Ross Romano picked up the phone and asked his buddies at Ernst and Young to oversee the insolvency process. The only “help” given by the Ford Conservatives, influenced by the pandemic, was to postpone the implementation of even deeper cuts to post-secondary funding, such as their plan to tie post-secondary funding to market performance metrics from recent graduates. Nevertheless, the pandemic has exacerbated the underlying contradictions of post-secondary funding, which increasingly relies on tuition fees, international and domestic, to keep afloat.
Some students, both domestic and international, have abstained from enrolling in schooling this semester—hoping that the situation blows over and they can avoid classes over Zoom. In the case of many international students, their “market” has broadened with the borderlessness of near-total virtual education during the pandemic. With the capital flows connected to international student tuition following new patterns, universities and colleges across the country are scrambling to try and retain their current student base and expand wherever possible.
The pandemic has merely accelerated the process where university administrations prioritize finance and marketing at the expense of educational quality.
Which way forward for the fight for well-funded post-secondary education?
Many believe that Laurentian is a canary in the coal mine for the coming collapse of other post-secondary institutions across Canada—that this is not just a phenomenon affecting institutions in more remote settings such as Nipissing in North Bay, but also for institutions in dense urban centres such as Concordia in Montreal.
The labour movement has already shown an undue amount of patience with the current administration at Laurentian and the provincial government by reopening their collective agreements and shouldering a financial burden they did not create.
CUPE Ontario, which represents some of the university workers in post-secondary education across the province, issued a press release on April 12 which said the following: “We echo the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) leadership, which today called for the Minister [Romano] to do the honourable thing and submit his resignation, immediately.” CUPE also appealed to the federal government to amend the Company Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA) so that it cannot be used in the case of post-secondary institutions.
While the resignation of Romano is certainly called for, and the CCAA is undoubtedly being used in a criminal fashion to avoid responsibility to workers at Laurentian, we can be under no illusion that this can be chalked up to incompetence and a legal loophole. The Ford Conservatives, just like the Liberal governments of Kathleen Wynne and Dalton McGuinty before, have been purposefully bringing post-secondary education to this cliff.
What is needed is a restructuring of Laurentian guided by workers’ democracy. We need to do away with post-secondary structures like boards of governors and academic senates, which often house unelected officials responsible for the future of post-secondary education who are informed by the profit motive. They should be replaced with structures comprised of workers and students on campus who are more intimately familiar with what makes education work.
There is immense dissatisfaction with the current state of education amongst students, especially in the era of virtual learning and climbing tuition. This anger can be tapped into in order to amplify the message of workers at Laurentian and post-secondary workers across the country and effect change for students as well.
We need a mass injection of funds to end the crisis in post-secondary education. The fact that Laurentian is being allowed to fail is further evidence that capitalism is coming apart at the seams. And the fact that it is minority francophone and Indigenous students who are the first to suffer underlines the systemic racism of the capitalist system. We need to build a mass movement to properly fund our schools and colleges. Students and workers need to unite for free education and decent conditions for campus workers. It is becoming increasingly apparent that capitalism cannot provide these essential needs, and we need to bring about a socialist society that can.