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Strike threats after Ontario’s public-private partnership boom

Last May, a company called Cestar Group donated $2 million to Lambton College, a publicly funded post-secondary institution in Sarnia, Ontario. In return, Lambton named its athletic centre after Cestar.

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union threatened strike action in March. Photo: pexels

In the past decade domestic enrolments have fallen 15%, while the number of international students has increased by 342%

The donation followed a 2019 contribution of $4m by Cestar, which runs a private college for international students in the Toronto area.

So why has a private school donated $6m to a public college? Well, it turns out that Cestar has for more than a decade had a contract with Lambton to use its curriculum to teach international students, primarily from India. The Cestar students graduate with a certificate from Lambton College.

“Lambton College has been working with Cestar Group for many years, and we’re thankful for the tremendous international educational opportunities they have provided for so many of our students,” Judith Morris, president and CEO, said at the time of the announcement. “This donation is an extraordinary tribute to our collaborative partnership.”

It appears that both Lambton and Cestar have done very well financially from this arrangement.

This public-private partnership is not unique to Lambton. Colleges across Ontario have been given the green light to set up these campuses in the Toronto area to take advantage of international student demand for a Canadian credential and the chance to study in a big city.

When the Ontario college system was set up 50 years ago, colleges like Lambton were supposed to serve the local community. Now, very few domestic students are aware that Lambton operates a lucrative campus for international students 300 kilometres away in Toronto.

There are risks for colleges like Lambton. In 2018, the Ontario Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills hired a consultant to look into the practice. In its report, the consultant warned about maintaining the quality of education.

The study said that the Ontario government does not have the tools the monitor the student experience, ascertain whether the programs are meeting academic standards and to determine whether international students are satisfied with the experience.

“The potential risks should be a deep concern for the government,” the consultant argued.

The report says that the public colleges received only 10-15% of the international student fees to provide the curriculum to the private schools.

A spokesman for Lambton College did not respond to a request for comment.

A decade ago, six Ontario colleges had set up these partnerships. Since then, the number of arrangements has continued to grow. In fact, some colleges have doubled down on international education and vowed to increase their revenues dramatically.

Last year, Fanshawe College, a public post-secondary institution based in London, Ontario, announced that it plans to grow international enrolment by 50% over five years through a partnership with a private school in Toronto.

The province’s auditor general reported that 11 public colleges are now partnering with private colleges to provide programs to international students. The auditor general chastised the ministry for failing to monitor these partnerships and for the absence of an independent quality assurance audit.

The auditor general warned the province’s 24 colleges about relying too heavily on international students to meet their budget needs. It noted that in the past decade domestic enrolments have fallen 15%, while the number of international students has increased by 342%.

The auditor noted that there are huge risks associated with relying on international students to balance the budget. It expressed concern that 62% of the students come from a single country – India. It suggested the Ontario colleges could be in serious trouble if Indian students stopped coming or could no longer get study permits.

International fees, which are higher than domestic tuition, represent 68% of the total tuition revenue of the colleges. The Ontario colleges collected $1.7 billion in 2020-21 from international students.

“The union was seeking language that there wouldn’t be any job losses as a result of any contracting out”

In March, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents faculty at the province’s 24 public colleges, brought the issue to the forefront. It threatened to strike over the contracting out of teaching to the private colleges, in addition to concerns about workload.

Darryl Bedford, president of the union local representing faculty at Fanshawe College, in London, Ontario said, “The union was seeking language that there wouldn’t be any job losses as a result of any contracting out and we would have the ability to give permission for any outside use of our materials”.

In the end, the union and public colleges agreed to arbitration to settle the dispute – rather than go on strike. So, we’ll see how the arbitrator rules in the coming months.

Fanshawe spokesman Kyle Rooks says the private sector partner, ILAC International College, was carefully chosen and will meet all standards for academics and student satisfaction. “Providing an exceptional student experience is a foundational requirement of the partnership agreement,” Rooks noted.

International student fees play a vital role in Fanshawe’s ability to balance its books, Rooks argued. “Over the longer term, colleges and government will need to find solutions to the sector’s long-term fiscal challenges to ensure students will continue to have access to quality programs.”

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