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The state of French-language postsecondary education in Ontario

As Université de Sudbury hits a wall, other French-language universities in Ontario are experiencing record enrolment.


The 2023 academic year in Ontario began with a mix of good and bad news. Université de l’Ontario français (UOF) and Université de Hearst seem to have the wind at their back, but Université de Sudbury (U de Sudbury) is floundering while  faculty at the University of Ottawa (U of O) continue to see stormy days ahead.

The Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities announced on June 30 that it was rejecting Université de Sudbury’s application for funding. This came as a surprise to its president Serge Miville, who had felt that discussions were going well.

Read also: Tough times for French postsecondary education in Ontario

The ministry, however, claimed that the university’s proposed programs weren’t aligned with market needs, among other reasons for the decision. Dr. Miville disagreed, noting that the programs are based on the same data provided to  the ministry and are designed to meet market demand for French-speaking workers.

“Since last June, Université de Sudbury has been working with its institutional partners, the Government of Ontario and the Government of Canada on ways to meet the need for French-language university programs and to address the labour shortage. These efforts are part of a broader initiative that the Ontario government has entrusted to a panel of experts,” said Dr. Miville in a written statement.

Luc Bussières, president of Hearst, didn’t see the government’s decision coming either. “We were concerned that it was taking a while, but I for one assumed the answer would be yes in the end.”

Dr. Bussières disputes the ministry’s assertion that Ontario already has enough French-language programs. “If you count the programs at Université de Hearst and the [Université de l’Ontario français], it’s still less than 10,” he pointed out.

Pierre Ouellette, president of UOF, had his doubts when he noticed that U de Sudbury wasn’t included in the spring 2023 provincial budget. This setback for U de Sudbury casts a shadow over the proposed network of francophone universities in Ontario, which was to include UOF, Hearst and possibly U de Sudbury. Dr. Bussières and Mr. Ouellette confirmed that discussions have stalled. They submitted more information about their proposed model in March 2023 at the provincial government’s request, but haven’t heard a word since, which means the federal government has yet to see it either.

Enrolment is up

The news isn’t all bad. Enrolment is up this fall at both of Ontario’s francophone universities. Hearst is welcoming 108 first-year students, 20 more than in 2022. The student body as a whole has grown from 275 in 2022 to 334 in 2023. The president expects another 25 to 40 new students in January 2024.

At UOF, Mr. Ouellette said the new school year is off to an excellent start. After the first week of classes, the school had233 students enrolled, with nearly a third in its new teaching program. This program was originally designed to hold just 40 seats, but the government added funding for another 40. While welcome, these 110 new positions (the other 70 were given to U of O) are not enough.. According to the Association des enseignantes et enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO), more than 500 teachers need to be hired each year in Ontario to meet demand.

Still in start-up mode, UOF is about where it expected to be in its five-year plan. “The expansion of the programs will drive further growth. I’d say we’ve gotten the new programs ready faster than we expected,” said Mr. Ouellette.

Case in point: UOF recently announced the creation of a bachelor’s degree in business administration in partnership with Collège La Cité for the 2024 academic year. A bachelor’s degree in mental health is also in development, and Mr. Ouellette hopes to offer UOF’s first graduate program before the university celebrates its fifth anniversary in 2025.

While it’s too early to confirm enrolment numbers for the bilingual universities, Yves Pelletier, U of O’s associate vice-president of Francophonie, expects the number of francophone students to remain relatively stable compared to the previous academic year. Overall, francophone enrolment is on the rise, up from 11,653 at the start of the 2018 school year to 13,563 in 2021 and 14,109 in 2022. In 2021, 32 per cent of the university’s students were French speakers.

Laurentian University is expected to confirm its enrolment figures in November.

Professors are keeping a close watch on the University of Ottawa

Student enrolment aside, it’s unclear  if the situation has improved at the U of O since a 2021 report on the state of francophonie at the university painted a troubling picture. The Association of Professors of the University of Ottawa (APUO) said the report is too recent to assess its impact.

Dr. Pelletier, however, believes that the recent Regulation on Bilingualism, adopted in October 2022, will help put French on an equal footing with English in terms of recruitment, knowledge production, teaching and learning.

Dr. Pelletier noted that other initiatives have been launched since 2021, including an in-depth review to ensure current French-language programs comply with the French Language Services Act.

The APUO, however, expressed concern that the institution’s budgetary practices “represent a major obstacle to achieving the goals identified in the report.”

It believes the university is needlessly creating a climate of fear around its financial situation. “The administration insists that our operating budget is in deficit, when the deficit actually stems from its own use of interfund transfers. The operating fund only shows a deficit after these scheduled transfers are made.”

The union’s grievances include disproportionate spending on outside professionals and a five per cent cut to faculty budgets. “These cuts are having a negative impact on the quality of education at the university, including francophone education,” a union representative affirmed in a written statement.

The budget cuts have also resulted in less administrative support for professors, whose workloads have increased. “While the administration has announced some recent wins for francophone education — for example, that the francophone student body is growing — the quality of French-language education will continue to suffer if the administration insists on maintaining its current budgetary practices,” said a representative from the APUO.

Lost in translation

In April 2023, U of O temporarily suspended enrolment in its undergraduate and graduate translation programs. The news was poorly received by students, professors and translation professionals alike.

According to U of O, enrolment had been declining since 2016. According to, U of O spokesperson Jesse Robichaud, the suspension was necessary to “rethink and better leverage our strategic position in the National Capital Region and our special status as a bilingual university.”

A reopening date has yet to be announced. Faculty members are leading the review process in consultation with professors, students, alumni and external partners.

APUO is among those decrying the suspension as a slippery slope to permanent closure, a fear fuelled by U of O’s previous university-wide budget cuts.

According to the union, “the school of translation and interpretation should be prized and protected, not jettisoned to cut costs.”

International students

In addition to language-specific challenges, francophone institutions also face the same issues as other Canadian universities. In its first two years of operation, UOF drew criticism for the low number of enrolments from Ontario and Canada. According to Mr. Ouellette, the most recent cohort is about 50 per cent Canadian students. “We’ve never apologized for being a magnet for international students. We’d never be on a level playing field with English-language universities otherwise.”

That’s why he’s keeping a close eye on the issue of federal student visas. French-speaking students still seem to experience longer wait times, and applicants from some parts of Africa continue to face higher refusal rates.

Read also: Access denied: High refusal rates of study permits an issue at francophone universities

Hearst also relies on international students to boost enrolment, but Dr. Bussières said he’s seeing an upward trend in student visa approvals. “Our rejection rate in Ontario has been hovering around 70 to 80 per cent over the last few years. That seems to be improving. Last year we were closer to a 40 per cent approval rate. There seems to have been some movement at [Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada].”

A province-wide housing shortage

This rise in international students is welcome, but it also puts a strain on housing from Hearst to Toronto. And according to Dr. Bussières, the shortage extends beyond major urban centres. “In 2021, the housing vacancy rate was 0.05 per cent in Hearst, 0.07 per cent in Timmins and 0.08 per cent in Kapuskasing. Things certainly haven’t gotten better. We had serious concerns going into the fall semester.”

According to his team, the regional housing crisis has forced 10 to 15 students to postpone their university plans.

UOF has an agreement with a nearby residence hall, “but it’s still expensive.” Building one isn’t out of the question, but it’s hard to put that on the agenda when the institution is only in its third year.

Read also: Solving the student housing crisis

Hearst simply doesn’t have the resources to build its own residence halls, and the Ontario government has no capital funding for postsecondary institutions.

In Sudbury, the housing crisis is so acute that U de Sudbury is offering itself up as a solution. Last year, it renovated its residence hall to accommodate 176 students.

“We will never give up as long as we continue to have a positive impact on our community and our students,” said Dr. Miville. “We agree with Premier Ford that we need to make a concerted effort to address the housing and labour shortages, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Those that follow Canada’s francophone education and immigration issues recently spoke out against Housing, Infrastructure and Communities Minister Sean Fraser’s suggestion of capping the number of international students at colleges and universities to limit their impact on housing. The presidents of UOF and Hearst agree that a cap is not the answer.

“I think students make for an easy target,” said Mr. Ouellette. “They have very little opportunity to defend themselves and make their case.”

As the federal government works towards a solution, francophone institutions will continue to open their doors to international students.

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