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Laurentian University insolvency: canary in a coalmine

By: 
Pam Johnson and Chantal Sundaram

March 17, 2021
 
In an unprecedented move by a public institution, Laurentian University applied for insolvency protection under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA) in February.  This act is normally used by private companies as a protection from its creditors and to attempt to restructure its finances.
 
The fact that a public institution under the mandate of the Ontario government is using this act is a warning bell to all workers and users of public services. This act essentially freezes proceedings against the university administration. It is an attempt to bypass collective agreements and puts students, faculty and staff in uncertainty and fear about the future of their jobs and education. 
 
The timing of this at Laurentian is notable: faculty were facing employer concessions in bargaining and facing off over the administration’s refusal to provide any evidence for the dire financial situation they were claiming. And students had raised public protest about the abrupt shut down or cut back of arts programs.  
 
Then suddenly, after months of financial secrecy, the administration filed for creditor protection, which requires no notice to any of the stakeholders. This includes unions, who are lumped in with other creditors, like banks.
 
What is Laurentian University?
 
Laurentian is a major employer in Sudbury, which is no longer just a mining town. Laurentian is also the only university offering substantial programs for Indigenous and Francophone communities. 
 
The participation of Indigenous students is several times the national average, 52% of Laurentian students are the first in their family to access university, and it is the only fully bilingual university in Ontario’s North where the largest concentration of Franco-Ontarians live. 
 
The staff and students of Laurentian also punch above their weight in research: a unique online dictionary of Ojibway, the importance of the Boreal forest to ecology, the unique geology of the nickel belt.
 
Job loss and meaningful access to a university education for historically disadvantaged communities would be a huge loss for Northern Ontario and well beyond. But it will also be yet another injustice that exposes the false commitment by the Federal government to reconciliation and bilingualism. 
 
Ontario underfunds post-secondary education, but the Federal government fuels it – and then dodges responsibility.
 
Why Laurentian now?
 
There is no doubt that the administration of Laurentian made reckless decisions about real estate spending and squandered millions of dollars of research funds brought in by staff and students that was not theirs to spend on their own debt.
 
But the financial situation of Laurentian was predictable given Ontario’s chronic underfunding of the post-secondary sector for decades. Ontario funds post-secondary education at the lowest level of any province, 40% less than the national average per student. The Ford government has continued to underfund the sector including cuts to student assistance, reduction of grants, and a tuition cut that did little to help students but reduced revenue to institutions. 
 
This is what drives reckless decisions by local university administrations to find alternate sources of private funding that only dig a deeper hole. Those guilty of mismanagement are at every level of authority: the local senior administration, the local Board of governors (mostly appointees from government and private corporations), and the provincial and federal governments. 
 
Privatization
 
The other part of the Ford agenda has been to push privatization at every opportunity, including reopening the door to private/public partnerships that was closed by the previous Wynne government. The pandemic has provided cover for accelerating this process.
 
Ford’s government has made no secret of its agenda for privatization. Ross Romano, Ontario minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, at a Covid related press conference in June, “At the end of the day, colleges and universities are businesses offering academic services”.
 
The restructuring plan for Laurentian has been put on the fast track with a completion date of April 30. While there is a mediation process in court to determine the “plan” where unions are formally involved, they have no recourse to job action. The process is always stacked against unions, and in this case also against what’s best for students. 
 
Support
 
Public pressure can influence the court. It needs to be held accountable to a standard that values public post-secondary education as a social good – and to the right of remote, Indigenous and Francophone communities to a full range of university programs in their own geographic area.
 
A week of social media action was launched in February that told the stories of the students, alumni, staff, parents and community members who value Laurentian. A community campaign called Save our Sudbury was launched and held a townhall hosted by NDP MPP Jamie West – which had to close its virtual doors at 500 capacity. Both speakers and participants spoke to the fact that if not for Laurentian, they would never have attended university.
 
You can join Save our Sudbury’s Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/695370027749927
 
 
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