Sudbury

Nipissing University, in North Bay, Ont., at high financial risk, says auditor general

Nipissing University, in North Bay, Ont., is at high financial risk, according to the latest value-for-money audit of Ontario universities from the province’s auditor general.

Value-for-money audit raises concerns about debt, international student recruitment

In her value-for-money audit of Ontario universities, Ontario's Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk says Nipissing University needs to take steps to manage its debt and improve its board of governors. (Erik White/CBC )

Nipissing University, in North Bay, Ont., is at high financial risk, according to the latest value-for-money audit of Ontario universities from the province's auditor general.

As Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk raised concerns about Nipissing's financial health in her report, the president of the university's faculty association said the school is a far cry from Laurentian University.

The Sudbury, Ont., university announced it was insolvent in February 2021, and underwent more than a year of proceedings under the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA), which included significant cuts to programs, staff and faculty.

In April 2021 Laurentian eliminated 76 programs, which affected the academic and career plans of an estimated 932 students.

"While according to this report it is at a high risk, but not anything close to bankruptcy," said Sarah Winters, president of the Nipissing University Faculty Association.

"We are not Laurentian, which is good to hear."

Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk says Nipissing University was $34.7 million in debt as of April 30, 2021, from various undertakings including the construction of new residence buildings and a research innovation centre. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

The auditor general's report said Nipissing University was $34.7 million in debt as of April 30, 2021, from various undertakings including the construction of new residence buildings and a research innovation centre.

In her special report on Laurentian University, Lysyk noted that that university's poorly planned and costly capital expansion, which started in 2010 was a big contributor to its financial difficulties.

With regards to Nipissing, Lysyk said the university "did not assess the financial feasibility of major capital projects before proceeding with them."

She said Nipissing built an athletic centre in 2015, at a cost of $23.1 million, of which $8.5 million was funded through external debt.

Our northern universities are not getting the support we need to serve our communities in the north.- Sarah Winters, Nipissing University Faculty Association President

Despite the significant cost to the project, Lysyk said the university didn't present a strong enough feasibility plan to its board for review and approval. 

Lysyk also noted about half of Nipissing's board members had "little or no financial literacy expertise or experience."

However, while Ontario universities have become more dependent on higher tuition rates from international students, only one per cent of Nipissing's student enrolment is international.

Winters said all Ontario universities, but especially those in northern Ontario, are underfunded by the province.

"The big universities, Toronto, York, Queens and Western, they've always been fine all the way along," she said.

Kevin Wamsley is the the president and vice-chancellor of Nipissing University. (St. Francis Xavier University)

"So our northern universities are not getting the support we need to serve our communities in the north."

Winters added that one key difference between Nipissing and Laurentian is that the faculty union has "excellent relations" with the administration.

"The university administration has responded to our requests for meetings about financial information and we certainly don't have, you'll notice on the Laurentian report, the backlog of grievances," she said.

"That hasn't happened here at all."

'We've been making some very good gains'

Nipissing University president and vice-chancellor Kevin Wamsley said the university has made a lot of progress on its finances since it was audited by the auditor general.

"The Auditor General's report finished with fiscal 2021, a year and a half ago," Wamsley said.

"And so we have taken significant measures to address a lot of these recommendations, which is a good thing."

The report includes 14 recommendations, which range from adhering to the university's new debt policy — which it has complied with since November 2021 — and that it prioritize and track competencies like financial literacy for board members, while also reducing the board's size.

Wamsley said Nipissing is also making efforts to increase its international student recruitment, which would bring in more revenues.

"The past year and a half we've been making some very good gains and our programs are very popular and we will gradually increase our international complement," he said.

He concluded the university is on a healthy financial trajectory.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jonathan Migneault

Digital reporter/editor

Jonathan Migneault is a CBC digital reporter/editor based in Sudbury. He is always looking for good stories about northeastern Ontario. Send story ideas to jonathan.migneault@cbc.ca.

With files from Kate Rutherford

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