On October 26 and updated October 28, national news outlet The Globe and Mail published an opinion entitled “Doug Ford was right to cancel funding for new Ontario university campuses.” In the piece, the writer posits that the provincial government’s recently-announced cancellation of $305 million in funding for post-secondary expansions in the greater Toronto area is unfortunate news for the affected, but ultimately the best decision.

The byline reads “Leo Groarke.”

The funding cancellation comes after the previous government established the funding in 2015. During the provincial election campaign, several Progressive Conservative (PC) members of provincial parliament (MPPs) promised the party would maintain the funding if elected.

However, the Ontario PC government announced on October 23 that they would break that promise, citing a larger-than-expected deficit after coming into power this spring.

“At a time when the government is determined to cut spending, the question is whether it should spend $300 million to make new spaces available for students,” President and Vice-Chancellor Groarke writes of the decision. “The short answer is “No.””

The funding cancellation affects York University and Seneca College’s partnership in establishing space in Markham; Wilfrid Laurier University and Conestoga College in Milton; and Ryerson University and Sheridan College in Brampton.

President Groarke goes on to detail that post-secondary enrollment in the age group immediately following the completion of high school is decreasing, which suggests little need for more campuses and greater need to support institutions that already exist.

“If the Ontario government wants to keep the province’s current institutions healthy, it needs to make them a priority, not spend limited resources on brand-new projects,” he concludes with these factors in mind.

When asked about what other avenues post-secondary institutions could pursue if they wish to expand their campuses in an email interview while he was out of the province, President Groarke reiterated the claims in his opinion piece.

“In cases where [campus expansion or contraction] is needed, universities and colleges can pursue such changes without capital funding from the province,” he stated. “But this is not a time when the government should be spending hundreds of millions of dollars in ways that will create empty spaces.”

According to Common University Data Ontario, Trent University’s total enrollment number from fall 2012 was 7952 students. For 2017, the Trent University website reports 8940 total students.

Both undergraduate and graduate students have increasingly expressed frustration with the university’s lack of study space and on-campus housing.

The president felt compelled to write the piece “for a couple of reasons,” he wrote in the same interview.

“First, to call attention to the issues raised by the new campuses planned for the Toronto area – issues that concern the future of the university system in Ontario,” he said.

“Second, I was disappointed in the public discussion of the new campuses,” he continued. ”I wanted to promote a deeper discussion of the future of colleges and universities in Ontario.”

President Groarke’s opinion piece has certainly promoted discussion in the Trent University community.

“It sounds to me like he has two objectives with this article and the CBC interview: first, to get Trent on the government’s good side for future opportunities[;] and second, to encourage that $305 million to be redirected to existing campuses and not spent elsewhere,” Masters student Katie Rosa wrote on Facebook. “Or perhaps he just hates maintaining good relationships with these other universities’ presidents.”

According to Rosa and one other source, President Groarke spoke on the CBC program Here and Now with Gill Deacon regarding his piece in late October. No recording or transcript of the interview have been made available online. Here and Now has not responded to Arthur’s request for listening access or comment at the time of writing.

Trent alum and senior editor of Electric City Magazine Dr. David Tough responded to the opinion piece with concern: “For students who are trying to access higher education without financial support and without going into debt, the more places there are university campuses the better. Ditto for people trying to juggle work and family responsibilities alongside school. Not everyone can drop everything and move to another city to go to school full time.”

This is a selling point for many institutions with satellite campuses. The Trent Durham-GTA website claims “proximity to work or home is an important consideration; approximately 70 per cent of students commute to campus in less than 40 minutes.” The website also emphasizes the convenience of 401 access, nearby GO Transit with connections to municipal transit, and free parking.

“It seems a little transparent that Trent wouldn’t want the competition [of other schools in the GTA with satellite campuses],” commented community member Annie Jaeger. “Post secondary school has become big business, insane debt disguised as a prerequisite for precarious employment.

“I think it’s a pretty obvious attempt to curry the favour of the Ford government, and a blatant betrayal of his promise to be a president for students,” stated student Maxine Niehaus.

Lindsay Yates, Vice President of Campaigns and Equity for the Trent Central Student Association (TCSA), expressed that she was taken aback by the university president’s piece.

“A friend from [Canadian Federation of Students (CFS)] in Guelph sent [a link to the piece] to me,” she recalled, noting that she and other TCSA executives had not seen the piece until about a week after it had been published on The Globe and Mail website.

Yates described the piece as “puzzling” and “strange” in its detachment from student experience and its brevity.

“To headline your article [like that], you are siding with a government that is not for the students,” she said of the piece. “To centre your article around siding with that government is really concerning.”

To address this and other concerns brought up by the president’s piece, the TCSA published a statement on Facebook after it was approved at the Board of Directors meeting on November 4.

Page 1 of the statement from the Trent Central Student Association (TCSA) regarding President Leo Groarke’s opinion piece published with The Globe and Mail. Document courtesy of Lindsay Yates.
Page 2 of the statement from the Trent Central Student Association (TCSA) regarding President Leo Groarke’s opinion piece published with The Globe and Mail. Document courtesy of Lindsay Yates.

The official Trent University Facebook responded on the TCSA’s post: “The President’s position is the opposite of what has been suggested by the TCSA: i.e. that the government made the right decision to cancel funding for unneeded new campuses, so that there is more provincial money available to spend on students and making existing campuses better. Students and the health of the postsecondary system that serves them, based on provincial funding, are the primary concerns behind his op ed in the Globe.”

Yates is aware that President Groarke claims that he does not agree with the provincial government in other ways, but claims he has not been as vocal about his disagreements as he has been with the issue at hand.

Yates said that she and the TCSA would be happy to discuss the piece and its issues with the president if the opportunity becomes available.

President Groarke’s piece has also been a topic of discussion in Queen’s Park.

According to the Hansard transcript from October 29, New Democratic Party MPP for Toronto’s Spadina-Fort York riding Chris Glover pursued the issue of the funding cancellation with Progressive Conservative Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Merrilee Fullerton of Ottawa’s Kanata-Carleton riding.

“During this year’s election campaign, the Conservatives promised that, if elected, they would honour commitments to fund post-secondary expansion in Brampton, Markham and Milton. Will the minister depart from her talking points today and justify the government’s decision to break this promise?” MPP Glover asked.

After citing the provincial deficit, Minister Fullerton responded, “I want to share the perspective of Leo Groarke, president and vice-chancellor of Trent University. He says, “In a situation in which the system is characterized by a lack of students, creating entirely new campuses takes students away from existing campuses at a time when they are scrambling to find students they need to fill the spaces they already have available.””

Based on audited statements for the 2017/2018 academic year, Trent University Peterborough campus and Trent University Durham campus received $40.7 million and $4.98 million in Core Operating Grant funding from the province respectively.

When asked if he believes that Trent will benefit under this government as a result of these funding cancellations, President Groarke reiterated that he believes the cancellation was “the right thing to do.”

“In the long term it will help ensure that all of the existing campuses in Ontario have the students they need to be successful,” he stated. “But it would be naïve to think that this will, by itself, resolve funding issues. I don’t think it will eliminate our funding challenges, though the government has not yet said what it plans to do with base funding, and we need to wait and see what happens in that regard.”