But seriously: Why are we building new universities in the GTA?

OPINION: The government has announced two new university campuses, to be built in Milton and Brampton. It should be looking elsewhere, writes John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on April 25, 2018
An artist's rendering of the new Brampton campus of Ryerson University
An artist's rendering of the new Ryerson campus planned for Brampton. (ryerson.ca)

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​There is a world after the June 7 election, and it’s still the government’s job to plan for it. Which is why the ministry responsible for planning the province’s colleges and universities has announced that two new university campuses will be built in the Greater Toronto Area sometime in the 2020s: one in Brampton and one in Milton.

Each location has its pros and cons (Milton’s is in farmland, and Brampton’s is next to a GO station), but what’s striking is how close they are to each other: someone willing to spring for the tolls on the 407 could drive from one location to the other in about half an hour. The province is spending $90 million on each of these sites (a figure that doesn’t include the money both Milton and Brampton have already spent over the course of years of preparation), and they’re practically neighbours.

This all raises a pretty basic question: Why? Not “Why are we building new universities?” (we’re going to have more undergraduates to teach in the future) or even “why Milton and Brampton?” (both municipalities have been part of a years-long process to prepare them for new facilities) but something even more basic: Why are we building new universities in the Greater Toronto Area at all?

The answer provided by the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development is straightforward: the province’s population is growing fastest in the GTA, and the government needs to build where the people are going to be. Additionally, the region is and will continue to be home to some of the larger concentrations of new Canadians in the province, meaning that international students can find communities to help them land here.

Those are good enough answers, as far as it goes, but they’re deeply unsatisfying in the context of some other trends in Ontario — namely, the increasing concentration of wealth and people in regions focused on just two cities: Ottawa and Toronto (and, really, Toronto more than Ottawa). Premier Kathleen Wynne has spoken extensively about the fact that the province’s wealth isn’t being spread equally across the province, that too many parts of Ontario are still struggling to recover from the 2008 recession.

Well, university campuses aren’t just classrooms and students. They’re also major employers that provide stable, decent wages — even for the small army of service workers required to keep a few thousand undergraduates fed, watered, and not overwhelmed by their own filth. (No judgement; many of us were once gross adolescents.)

The thing is, with or without a university campus, Milton and Brampton will do just fine. Milton was already expected to be one of the fastest-growing communities in the region (with plenty of land for new homes and a healthy market for jobs), and Brampton will continue to be anchored by Pearson International Airport (whose operators are trying to land new federal money to make it into a new transit hub in the western GTA).

But there are plenty of places in this province, some not even that far from Toronto, where the economic prospects aren’t as rosy and which could desperately use the kind of long-term economic commitment that even a modest university would represent.

Ontario has already produced an example of this kind of success. The Northern Ontario School of Medicine didn’t just create new medical schools in Thunder Bay and Sudbury — it is graduating students who stay in the north: more than nine in 10 NOSM graduates stay in northern Ontario after they complete their MD and residency programs. Making serious investments outside of the province’s core cities can help struggling regions attract and retain the people they need.

Instead, the province is doing the opposite. When TVO.org asked MAESD for a list of the most recent university campus expansions, nearly all of them were in the GTA or Ottawa; two were within a modest drive (Brock University in St. Catharines and Guelph University). Only Laurentian’s new school of architecture, which opened last year, is substantially off the beaten path.

There’s wisdom in shouting down any elected leader who says their pet project will bring economic prosperity because “if we build it, they will come.” But there’s also a point at which this all becomes tautological: the government invests in fast-growing places because that’s where the people are, so those places become faster-growing and soak up even more money and people.

And it’s not like the government is happy to let the impersonal forces of demographics and economics drive post-secondary planning. The government is up to its eyeballs on both the supply (planning new campuses) and demand (paying students to attend universities and colleges) sides. The government is picking winners and losers, as far as communities go, and it’s fair to ask whether they’re considering all the options fairly.

And there are the students to consider. Is it fair to hold student ambitions hostage to the province’s regional economic-development goals? Should someone with a freshly printed high-school diploma be asked to move from their home just because the province would prefer, if they wouldn’t mind, that they spend their (or their parents’) money in a more out-of-the-way place?

It’s possible the answer to that last question is simply no, of course not. But plenty of international students travel much farther to come to Ontario’s universities. And anyone about to enter university is at a time in their life when they’ve got more flexibility and mobility than they’ll ever have again: generally, they’ve got no kids, no mortgage, and thanks to recent changes to OSAP, they might not even need to hold down a full-time job.

It doesn’t seem crazy to suggest that we might give them options to travel somewhere that can’t be reached via GO train.

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