Ontario’s French community has been asking for a university governed by and for Francophones. Even without the support of the Ontario government, could the modern curriculum proposed for the Université de l’Ontario français provide a way forward?

A deeply rooted demand

The Government of Ontario’s decision to cancel plans for the Université de l’Ontario français (UOF) last fall generated an outpouring of protests and resistance, thrusting the institution into the public sphere. And while the impact of this action has been described by journalists and historians, not much has been said about the UOF’s aspiration to become a true university of the 21st century. Here is an overview:

The UOF is deeply rooted in central and southwestern Ontario’s Francophone community. The region has a population of around 250,000 Francophones, but lacks a dedicated French-language university. Ontario’s Francophonie has been calling for the UOF for several decades now, particularly since the 2013 États généraux sur le postsecondaire en Ontario français.

While a small regional French-language university does exist in Hearst, Ontario, it has limited independence due to its affiliation with a bilingual university; other universities claim to be bilingual or offer bilingual programs in certain regions in Ontario (Ottawa, Sudbury, and Toronto), but they are not considered to be institutions governed by and for Francophones. The UOF’s charter, on the other hand, specifies that it must “support governance by and for the French-speaking community by conducting the affairs of the university in French.”

An evident need

The province of Ontario and various experts have identified the postsecondary education needs of Francophones on several occasions. The most recent reports in 2013 and 2016 concluded that there is strong demand, and thus a veritable need, in the central and southwestern region for such a university. In 2017, the French-Language University Planning Board conducted the latest comprehensive study on the matter and recommended that the UOF be established in downtown Toronto to serve both the central and southwestern region and Ontario’s Francophonie as a whole, through partnerships with other postsecondary institutions.

However, the planning board’s study did not just stop at addressing the community’s explicit demands. It also looked at issues and innovative practices in postsecondary education and examined the competencies needed for the job market and society of the 21st century. The board recommended that the UOF not become, as some would have wanted, a scaled-down version of the big conventional universities used as a reference. Instead, it should be a university reflective of its time, focusing on the strengths and characteristics of its environment (globalized, French multilingual and multicultural, urban, etc.) and contributing to modern-day issues (digital shift, ecological transition, population mobility, equitable economy, etc.)

A governance open to diversity

The UOF was developed as a public institution governed by and for French Ontarians. At the same time, as a university, it aims to connect with the world and its diversity, mirroring a large segment of its targeted population. Bringing together skills essential to a university’s growth, maintaining its independence, and representing every facet of the Francophone community were key factors in establishing the institution’s governance structure.

As such, the UOF’s first board of governors is composed of an equal number of men and women, with independent members reflecting an ethnocultural diversity, various age groups, and different skills required to successfully establish the UOF. The board was established in April 2018 and continues to preside over the UOF’s destiny.

A distinct pedagogical approach

During the conception phase, the planning board explored the most groundbreaking avenues and consulted with leaders in the industry, the public sector, and the community sector to better grasp what was expected of today’s graduates. Several institutions (Hearst University, Goucher College, Northern Illinois University, Quest University, the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, and Azim Premji University) were examined more closely to get a better idea of the innovative models they had to offer, while inspiration was found in certain practices adopted by other universities, such as Laval University’s profiles and blended learning, Algoma University’s Social Enterprise Round Table, Concordia University’s FOYER, Brock University’s Co-op, Career and Experiential Education, and Queen’s University’s Major Maps.

Concerned with focusing on the needs of its students, the UOF decided to take on a pedagogical approach to inform the development of its programs. This promised to be the institution’s flagship initiative. A team of teachers and experts weighed in on the matter and developed a novel pedagogical approach that rests on four axes: transdisciplinarity, inductive learning, experiential learning, and competencies.

The first component of the approach is transdisciplinarity. No academic structure, professor, or course would be confined to the bounds of the usual disciplines. Students would instead be encouraged to develop skill-specific knowledge, concepts, and methods to help them understand and solve complex, contemporary problems.

Learning would be inductive and result from the systematic observation of facts, the development of hypotheses, an eventual explanatory theorization, and finally a review of the facts in a new light. This approach breaks from traditional teaching methods that simply divulge theory and requires more active engagement from learners.

Learning would also be experiential. In other words, it would be achieved through direct contact with realities through in-class discussions with stakeholders, on-site visits, observation, internships, etc. Students would develop skills to enable them to integrate and be active members of society and the work environment.

Rather than being centred on the knowledge and theories teachers are required to convey, each program of study is built around the competencies it aims to develop in students.

This pedagogical approach is so vital to the UOF that it has developed a series of programs to prepare its faculty—and all other teaching candidates—to teach in higher education.

Unique transdisciplinary programs

From the outset, the UOF adopted principles such as equity, justice, diversity, collaboration, community closeness, sustainable development, and the social usefulness of its work. Additionally, by not setting up faculties or departments, the UOF opted to avoid the academic and administrative silos that hamper collaboration. The programs were developed in keeping with the transdisciplinary areas of excellence.

The first component of programs focuses on objects of study, pressing issues, and the ways to solve them. Taking into account the particularities of the Francophone communities that the UOF intends to serve, the four following areas were chosen to launch the university:

  • Studies in Human Plurality, to understand, highlight, and manage situations that involve human diversity (age, gender, culture, language, etc.)
  • Studies in Urban Environments, to understand the challenges common to large urban agglomerations and contribute to the sustainability of the ecosystems with which they interact.
  • Studies in Globalized Economy, to recognize the significance, overcome the challenges, and take advantage of the opportunities of the globalized economy unfolding at various levels, including at the local level.
  • Studies in Digital Cultures, to tackle the challenges, exploit the potential, and participate in the social progress brought on by the digital age.

The first bachelor’s programs in these areas were developed based on an assessment of over 150 programs of study offered in Quebec and Ontario in the same fields. Afterwards, about a hundred teachers and experts from various Canadian and foreign universities and institutions went to work designing, developing, and validating innovative programs. The programs were developed and submitted for approval to the appropriate authorities in October 2018.

Professional programs in tune with the times

The second wave of programs would be of the professional variety to meet the pressing needs of Ontario’s Francophone community in the central and southwestern region. In keeping with the search for innovative teaching methods adapted to modern times, the UOF has explored the possibility of partnering with other university and college institutions to offer programs in the fields of teaching, health care, social services, legal services, etc.

Recognition of languages

The UOF has operated in French in a predominantly Anglophone environment and believes in the importance of language learning. Students would commit to developing their competencies in French, English, and other languages. Moreover, the UOF would give students in English-language universities the possibility to obtain a certificate of academic and professional qualification in French by taking UOF courses that complement their fields of study.

A blended learning approach

As a 21st-century institution, the UOF would put the affordances of digital technology to good use to tear down the wall separating the inside and outside of the classroom. Though the blended learning approach, students would be able to actively participate in the on-site educational activities at the Toronto campus, the campuses at the UOF’s partner universities, and anywhere else in the world, in real time or asynchronously. Student records and portfolios would be digital to encourage a more personalized supportive framework.

A Francophone hub of knowledge and innovation

The UOF’s ties and engagement with the community are so crucial that its campus was conceived as part of the Francophone Hub of Knowledge and Innovation. The UOF is currently working towards the establishment of this hub, which would serve as the first wholly Francophone space in Toronto––a Francophone neighbourhood of sorts. Located downtown, it would bring together just over a dozen community organizations, institutions, and businesses that add life to Toronto’s Francophonie. It wouldn’t just be a shared space; it would be a place for these stakeholders to interact and collaborate. UOF students would be able to make use of the Hub’s services and learning environments, and the UOF itself would contribute to building a breeding ground of social, economic, and cultural innovation for the community, its organizations, and its businesses.

In short, the UOF positioned itself as a veritable 21st-century university.

Marc L. Johnson is the Project Director for the Francophone Hub of Knowledge and Innovation at the Université de l’Ontario français. He is also a consulting sociologist with Socius recherche et conseils as well as a research associate at the Chaire de recherche sur la francophonie et les politiques publiques at the University of Ottawa.