It’s that time of the year again! As today is la journée internationale de la Francophonie, OUSA is taking a closer look at the state of French education in Ontario at the elementary, secondary, and of course, post-secondary levels. With a record demand for French-language programs such as French Immersion in Ontario, the province lags behind in post-secondary education offerings for French-speaking students. There are both good and bad sides when one zooms in on the issue. Let’s begin with the good:
The Good News for French Language in Ontario
– The number of Canadians claiming to speak French has increased to over 10 million (1);
– Overall, the proportion of French-speaking Canadians has decreased from 31.8% of the population to 30.1% (1);
– There is a decrease in the number of Canadians who speak French as their first language. On the other hand, there is an increase in people who speak French as a second language. (1)
In other words, the number of Canadians learning to speak French is on the rise.
French programs in Ontario schools are large contributors to this stat. Nearly one million children were enrolled in either a Core French, Extended French, or French Immersion programs, which consisted of over 155,000 students in 2010 – 2011 (2). As the first cohorts of French Immersion graduates begin their lives as parents, the demand for French Immersion in elementary and secondary schools grows every year. The demand has risen to the point where many students cannot enroll as there are simply not enough resources to support them in the program. As a result, the actual growth of enrolment in French Immersion programs (which is close to 5% year-over-year) (2) is not reflective of the actual demand for French Immersion. A good problem to have, I suppose.
The Gap in French-Language University Programming
Where do these French Immersion students go once they graduate from secondary school? Only four public universities offer comprehensive French-language programs: the University of Ottawa, York University (Glendon College), Laurentian University, and the University of Guelph; with Guelph recently announcing the closing of their French agricultural program (the only one of its kind in the province). (3)
The severe lack of post-secondary options causes many Ontarian francophone students to look for alternatives: either in Quebec or English-language programs.
Having graduated high school as a French Immersion student, there are a couple of identifiable causes in the gap between the French Immersion enrollment and French programming in post-secondary education that stand out.
1) The newness of French Immersion.
French Immersion is a new program relative to the age of most universities. Despite the high demand for French Immersion in Ontario, universities appear to need more time to adapt.
2) Circular lack of demand
The lack of post-secondary options creates a lack of demand from students when selecting a post-secondary institution. Although most fields of study are offered at the mentioned institutions, there is little variety when it comes to the programs themselves. On the other hand, students have a variety of available programs in English to choose from, making it much more likely a bilingual francophone student will pursue post-secondary education in English. The lack of options creates a lack of demand from students. Lack of demand creates a lack of options.
Improvements in French-language University Programming
Steps are currently in motion to improve the state of French programs in post-secondary education and student enrollment. In January 2013, the Government of Ontario expanded the Ontario Distance Grant to include full-time students enrolled in French programs. French students who live over 80km away from their post-secondary institution are eligible for the grant of $500/term (4). Although the change in the grant is a step in the right direction and represents aid targeting francophone students specifically, OUSA believes the grant is not sufficient to cover the cost of traveling such large distances and does not take program choice into account. (OUSA Policy Paper: Rural and Northern Students – STUDENT FINANCIAL AID – Concern 8 & 9).
Another positive step in the development of French-language post-secondary education is the proposed establishment of the Advisory Committee on French-Language Postsecondary Education for Central and Southwestern Ontario. The committee will consist of representatives from student groups, and experts from the public, private, and non-profit sectors who are familiar with challenges faced by French-language post-secondary students (5).
There exists a gap between elementary and secondary school and post-secondary French programming. Of my 63 high school French Immersion peers, only three have moved on as a full time student in a French University program. The opportunities that exist for an Ontarian child to learn in French have come a long way in the last 30 years since the introduction of the French Immersion program. More can be done when it comes to opportunities for post-secondary students.
Marketing Executive, University Affairs
Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union (WLUSU)