Laurentian University, a major centre of higher learning in Ontario’s North, has filed for creditor protection amid the financial strain of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Despite our best efforts over the last year, Laurentian is insolvent," the school's president and vice-chancellor Robert Haché said in a statement. "This is a problem that can and will be addressed if all stakeholders work together to implement a vision for Laurentian that includes more financially sustainable operations."

It will now take about three months to create a restructured framework with the help of Ernst and Young, the court-appointed monitor of the proceedings, and existing operations will continue as normal in the interim, he said.

Haché blamed a number of factors for the school's troubles, including a history of recurring deficits and declining demographics, the 2019 closure of its Barrie campus and tuition fee cut ordered by the provincial government and then finally the global pandemic.

Laurentian had said in August that it was suspending admissions for 17 courses, citing low demand, and last month predicted a $10.6 million deficit for the 2020-21 year.

Ross Romano, the Progressive Conservatives’ minister for colleges and universities and a northern MPP, said he has appointed Dr. Alan Harrison, a former provost of Queen’s University in Kingston, to tell him how best to support the Sudbury-based school as it enters the court process.

“The government will be exploring its options, which could include introducing legislation to ensure the province has greater oversight of university finances and to better protect the interest of students and Ontario taxpayers,” Romano, who represents the riding of Sault Ste-Marie, said in a statement.

Romano had been in daily conversation with institutions to discuss short-term relief and the path to vital sustainability in the early days of the pandemic, a spokesperson said at the time.

Critics say tertiary education in the province has seen a steady erosion of public funding over several decades, leading many schools to lean heavily on enrolments from international students to balance budgets.

Tuition fees paid by international students can range between four and six times what domestic students pay.

That trend continued in 2019, when the current government ordered a 10 percent reduction in domestic tuition fees that removed $440 million from the province's higher education system ($360 million from universities and $80 million from colleges).

With the pandemic curtailing movement across borders and gatherings on campus, schools now face the need to move as much curriculum online as possible while hoping students, especially those from abroad, don’t choose to drop out.

The impact of COVID-19 could be “calamitous” for some small colleges, one industry participant told Canada’s National Observer in September.

Morgan Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer