Having the province’s arm’s length auditor go through the university’s books may yield the answers so many have been clamouring for
There is no doubt, there are still many questions regarding Laurentian University’s finances and how the institution found itself on the road to insolvency.
Everybody is clamouring for answers: politicians, reporters, faculty and students, staff. The public.
Given the secretive nature of the CCAA process, none of these answers are forthcoming, so news that Ontario’s auditor general will be conducting a value-for-money audit of Laurentian’s finances going back 10 years is welcome.
It isn’t the forensic audit many people are calling for, but it is still an audit, and the AG has wide-ranging powers to access the information they need to get at least some of the answers taxpayers are calling for.
As I said, it isn’t a forensic audit, which the auditor general’s office doesn’t do, as I understand it, but value-for-money audits do require the body being audited to crack open the books under the prying eyes of an accountant.
In the case of that type of audit as performed by the AG’s office, “government programs, agencies, certain public-sector organizations receiving government grants and Crown-controlled corporations” can all be subject to a value-for-money audit.
Auditors will pore over the books to see if the people responsible for making the spending decisions are doing so in a responsible, economical and effective way, and spending taxpayers’ money in the ways it was intended to be spent.
That’s pretty straightforward. Like many of you, I’m sure, I’ll be eagerly awaiting the results of that audit.
I said earlier there are many questions still swirling around about how Laurentian ended up in such a dire financial position that it had to seek the protection of the CCAA process.
This protection gave the university the power to ignore collective agreements and to slash jobs and programs as the administration saw fit. It also insulates the university from having to answer any questions about the actions it is taking during the process.
Now, there are many criticisms of the choices that have been made, concerning which programs were kept and which weren’t, and which faculty remained and which were let go. I’m not going to wade into that debate here.
Whether the CCAA process should have been applied to a publicly funded university at all is another valid question. I certainly think a smaller Laurentian University is better than no Laurentian University at all, but the hack and slash nature of the cost-cutting is not only painful to watch, but haphazard, taking the good with the bad.
This does not appear to be a surgical strike; it looks more like a hydrogen bomb.
For what it’s worth, I don’t believe the CCAA was manufactured deliberately to allow administrators to slash and burn underperforming faculty and programs, as has been suggested by some.
But I do have questions that I would like answered.
Year over year deficits: I can’t understand how the administration could present budget deficits year over year, and the board didn’t know there was a problem, while publicly saying it was presenting balanced budgets. Laurentian receives public money, so it has to show audited financial statements every year. How does a university go from fundraising more than $65 million in 2013 to insolvency eight years later? I can’t understand how Laurentian’s auditors didn’t know there was a problem.
Building spree: Much has been made about the campus modernization efforts and the building spree Laurentian went on over the past decade. By all accounts, labs, buildings and infrastructure were quite outdated, so the work that was done was necessary. It wasn’t a case that the board of governors and the administration just wanted to redecorate. Modernizing the campus was supposed to attract more students, but it doesn’t seem to have done so. Why not? And, what role, if any, did this building spree play in the eventual need to declare insolvency?
Tuition caps and funding cuts: The post-secondary sector does not receive the funding it once did, and not just in Ontario. Governments have continually pared back dollars since the post-secondary building boom in the latter half of the 20th century. Funding has been flat for years. Schools have had to get creative to keep the money flowing. If Laurentian is any indication, many schools are operating on the razor’s edge. How much of a role did government funding play in this mess?
International students: One of the ways post-secondary schools got creative with funding was international students. They are lucrative to say the least, paying far more to attend school in Canada than any domestic student would. This is a cash cow for many schools. But not Laurentian. Laurentian did an abysmal job attracting international students and their money. Why? Cambrian College has had great success at it; Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, too. These schools made it a priority to have a strategy to attract international students. How did Laurentian miss the boat on this?
The Barrie campus: Laurentian announced in 2016 that it would be closing its Barrie campus by the end of 2019. It had been delivering programs at the Georgian College campus since 2001, but in 2015 the province denied Laurentian’s request to expand its presence in Barrie, and a year later LU said it was closing the campus down. I’ve been told this is a factor that helped lead to the financial crisis, but how?
These are the questions I would like answered. These are the questions I hope this audit sheds light upon. It can’t come soon enough.
Mark Gentili is the community editor of Sudbury.com.