Colleges and universities in the northeast feeling the financial side effects of COVID-19

Colleges and universities in northeastern Ontario are still reeling from the financial blow of the COVID-19.  At the same time, some are predicting that there will be a post-pandemic boom for post-secondary education. 

Some colleges expecting an influx of mature students who lost their jobs during the pandemic

A masked woman is one of the few people on the almost deserted campus of College Boreal in Sudbury. (Erik White/CBC )

Universities and colleges in northeastern Ontario continue to feel the financial side effects of COVID-19.

At Laurentian University, enrolment is actually up 4 per cent this fall, most of that growth in the school's online programs.

But president Robert Hache says the school is still facing a deficit of as much as $10 million, about $7 million of that from the impact of the pandemic.

Laurentian University President Robert Haché says the school is facing a deficit of as much as $10 million this year, about $7 million directly related to the pandemic. (Laurentian University)

"Our residences are operating at 30 per cent capacity, but the costs remain. Food services, other ancillary operations, all of that has essentially gone away," he says. 

"So that has added some additional pressures, but really not unlike pressures that businesses and organizations across the country are feeling."

Hache says university staff are working hard on the finances and he's "very confident we'll come in with a much lower number" by the end of the school year this spring. 

A classroom at Laurentian University sits empty in March a day after the school moved all learning online in response to a confirmed COVID-19 case on campus. (Erik White/CBC )

Canadore College in North Bay is about 500 students short of where they originally expected to be this fall.

That loss of tuition revenue, plus the money that normally comes in from the cafeteria, bookstore and contract training for private industry has left the school with a deficit between $6 million and $9 million. 

"Manageable, but we are going to experience a little bit of pain," says president George Burton.

He says Canadore is holding off on campus renovations and buying new technology, but he is more concerned about what students will decide to do in 2021.

"How many students are just going to take a pause in their studies and stay home?" says Burton. 

"There is a COVID fatigue. There's gap between what they're experiencing and what their original expectations were."

Canadore College in North Bay is dealing with a deficit between $6 million and $9 million because of COVID-19. (Erik White/CBC )

Burton says in the coming years, there are also big questions about how many international students will return post-pandemic and if people out of work because of COVID-19 return to school to train for a second career "will there be sufficient government resources to be able to ramp up to meet that demand?"

"And that's kind of the long tail of this COVID scenario that we're looking at and trying to plan for with many, many unknowns," he says.

College Boreal is predicting that it will be able to balance the books by the end of the school year thanks partly to an influx of mature students looking to re-train.

"Which is surprising and not surprising when you're looking at the number of people looking to get re-educated," says president Daniel Giroux.

"It is a historic tendency when the unemployment rate is a little higher than enrolment in colleges do seem to increase."

The college was expecting a 35 per cent decline in enrolment, but started this fall just 62 short of last year. Boreal had been planning on hundreds of new international students and welcomed just 45. 

College Boreal President Daniel Giroux expects to deliver a balanced budget this spring with a January influx of older students looking to be re-trained. (Francis Ferland/Radio-Canada)

Giroux says they are starting 12 programs in January, including high demand careers during the pandemic including personal support worker and early childhood educator. 

"A lot of programs historically people said 'Ah you can't take that online' but when your back is against the wall, you're looking at innovative ways to actually offer those programs," he says. 

Cambrian College in Sudbury is also expecting to have a balanced budget this spring, despite welcoming 344 fewer students this fall than in 2019.

The tuition from International students makes up one third of the revenue for Northern College, which this year has 300 fewer learners from abroad.

Registrar Cam McEachern says some started their studies at home hoping to come to Canada for their second term, but for most that wasn't possible given internet infrastructure in their home countries.

He says since most programs are two years, that drop in international students will also be felt next year. 

(Erik White/CBC )

"So, we'll have a lingering affect. More or less the same financial pain next year as this," says McEachern.

Northern College is looking at an operating deficit of a few million dollars, which will be covered by holding off on some hiring and dip into their reserve funds. 

"So when we take a hit like this and have to spend some of our reserves, it means we're not spending them as we prefer to in investing for the future," says McEachern. 


Erik White


Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to


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