Université de l’Ontario Français’ future uncertain due to poor enrolment

By Alan S. Hale February 16, 2022

If there was hope that Franco-Ontarians would quickly embrace Université de l’Ontario Français (UOF) after the institution’s disappointing inaugural year of operation, they were dashed in January when new data showed just 14 Ontario high school students applied for enrolment, down from 19 during the school’s first year.

That has at least one post-secondary education analyst wondering about the future of the province’s long-called-for French university. It also sparks questions about whether the province would be willing to keep the institution afloat if it can’t meet its enrolment targets by the time Ontario is expected to begin providing funding in 2023-24. (The university hopes to attract 324 Ontario students, and more than 1,100 in total, by that time.)

Higher Education Strategy Associates president Alex Usher said “there’s no sugar-coating” the poor application figures for a second year in a row, noting the slow start could have been plausibly blamed on Covid and first-year jitters. Usher said it’s much likelier now that Franco-Ontarians are not interested in the university that was created specifically for them.

“This university was supposed to be by and for francophone Ontarians,” Usher told Queen’s Park Today. “The problem is that francophone Ontarians have taken a look at this organization, and they have said with their feet that they are not buying what’s being offered.”

Data shows just 14 Ontario high school students applied for enrolment at Université de l’Ontario Français this past year. (Google)

In response to questions from Queen’s Park Today, UOF said in a statement that “more Ontario students chose UOF as their preferred university of choice in 2022 compared to 2021.” The university also noted there are more international students applying, which combined with other applicants, such as mature students, brought the total number of students last year to 150. (Those figures have not yet been published.)

Usher said the university likely could become a successful post-secondary institution that caters specifically to francophone international students, but that would amount to giving up on the university’s purpose to service Franco-Ontarians.

UOF, meanwhile, argues its application levels are “relatively stable” and that it will take time to “build a tradition” among the francophone community, noting it took six years for French-language school boards to start attracting large numbers after their creation in 1998.

“Up until 2004, student enrolment even declined by four per cent before taking an upward trend. Today, it is widely known that Ontario’s French-language education system is well established and has a strong tradition of excellence,” said UOF in an emailed statement to Queen’s Park Today. 

“The Université de l’Ontario français intends to build on the achievements of its peers in French-language education in order to establish a strong university tradition in French for central and southwestern Ontario in the coming years.”

A political patate chaude

In 2017, the Kathleen Wynne-led Liberals pledged to create UOF, which had been urged by francophone activists for years and popular amongst segments of her party’s base. After taking office the following year, Premier Doug Ford’s PCs announced they were axing funding for the school, leading now-Grit MPP Amanda Simard to quit caucus and federal Liberal Minister Mélanie Joly to ramp up pressure on Francophone Affairs Minister Caroline Mulroney to reverse course.

UOF was eventually established in Toronto after an agreement was signed in January 2020 between Queen’s Park and Ottawa, in which the feds pledged to cover the first half of an eight-year, $126-million investment to set up the university, with Ontario funding the back half. Usher said the deal was built on projections that UOF would have nearly 2,000 students by the end of the arrangement.

“The way the deal was structured, ‘let’s figure out where we think you will be in eight years and pay you as if you are already there,’ which is not a bad way to set up a university,” he said. “The problem is that the institution then had to live up to its side of the bargain and actually get the students.”

Usher doubts the province will want to fund its share if applications from Ontario students don’t increase dramatically before 2023-24.

“[The province will likely say] ‘guys, this is nothing like the agreement we reached. We’re not going to give you millions of dollars to teach three Ontario students, or whatever’ — for which the provincial government would have some justification,” he said.

“If they continue to have low numbers, I think the province would be within their rights to revisit this whole thing. Maybe give them one more year.”

Ottawa may have ‘bought itself a university’: expert

College and Universities Minister Jill Dunlop’s office cut UOF some slack for the disappointing application figures.

“We recognize that student recruitment is particularly challenging for a newly created university in the context of the current pandemic and are aware of the sustained promotion, marketing, and program development efforts that the UOF is making to grow its student population,” it said in a statement.

The province also stressed UOF is independent of the province and responsible for its own academic, admissions and administrative matters.

UOF says it is working to expand its program offerings to attract more students, including a new Bachelor of Education program that will launch this upcoming academic year. A management and governance program “could also be on the horizon in the next few years,” the university said.

Usher says revamping its program offerings is likely the UOF’s best chance for turning things around. He noted the university does offer some “super interesting” courses, particularly some social sciences and humanities interdisciplinary programs. He said those programs would likely attract students if offered as part of a master’s degree, but they are not desirable enough for 18-year-olds fresh out of high school, who the UOF hopes to lure from other universities.

Even if the province decides to renege on its share of funding, Usher said that won’t necessarily force UOF to close. Due to political considerations, Ottawa could choose to keep it afloat.

“The feds can’t give the university back to the province because the province will kill it, so the Franco-Ontarian community will do what it always does: go to Ottawa and say ‘hey, what about money for Franco-Ontarian minority language education?’” he predicted.

“I think there’s at least conceivably a situation where the federal government has bought itself a university.”