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Municipalities vie for postsecondary campuses

Ceara Bruce, an English major at Wilfrid Laurier University, relaxes on campus on August 8, 2013. The town of Milton, which had a 56.5-per-cent surge in population from 2006 to 2011, has teamed up with Wilfrid Laurier University on a campus proposal and “education village” that has been in the works since 2008.

JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

Some of Ontario's fastest-growing municipalities, looking to host their own campuses, have partnered with universities in a bid for provincial funding to create postsecondary spaces in areas of projected enrolment growth.

The town of Milton, which had a 56.5-per-cent surge in population from 2006 to 2011, has teamed up with Wilfrid Laurier University on a campus proposal and "education village" that has been in the works since 2008.

Barrie, Markham and Brampton have also made partnerships, as universities and towns interested in opening new campuses have responded to a call from the province to meet growing demand for student spaces in regions that don't have a local university.

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John Corbett, Brampton's chief administrative officer, said the city has a "two-goal strategy for university development" that includes a downtown undergraduate campus paired with a research-oriented university that would deliver graduate programs.

"We did our strategic plan last year, and we heard loud and clear from our residents that they wanted their children and grandchildren to have the ability to stay at home for cost-saving reasons, through all phases of education," he said.

The population in Brampton grew by 20.8 per cent from 2006 to 2011, and city officials are working with Centennial College and senior administrators taking leave from the University of Guelph on a proposal to the province for a research-focused university.

Critics of the process, however, say the province's plans are premature and the growth of some universities will come at the expense of others.

Laurentian University, with a student population of 9,700, has partnered with Barrie on a proposal for a standalone campus that would offer several programs not available at the main Sudbury campus. Dominic Giroux, the university's president, said the new campus would feed demand from residents in Simcoe County for degree options close to home, while developing an urban centre in Barrie.

But plans for the new campus are being questioned by Orillia Mayor Angelo Orsi and Simcoe North MPP Garfield Dunlop, the new Conservative postsecondary critic, who said students are well-served by Georgian College's university partnership centre in Barrie and Lakehead University's Orillia campus, less than a half-hour drive away.

"I think the market is not there when there's no shortage of capacity in Simcoe County here. So adding more capacity to an existing area, you're causing more concern," Mr. Orsi said.

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In its call for proposals in March, the province outlined ambitious goals for "increased capacity at the undergraduate degree level" along with "greater affordability for students, institutions, and the province." The ministry said the exact amount of funding for the initiative, which is "in addition" to the Liberal government's 2011 pledge to create 60,000 spaces, is still being decided and the list of partnerships it has received will be released at the end of July.

According to the government, full-time enrolment in Ontario increased by 160,000 between 2002-03 and 2012-13. Over the next several years, enrolment pressure is expected to dip before rising steadily after 2020.

Many municipalities competed with one another to secure a partnership with a university. York University chose from six municipalities in the York Region before partnering with Markham in a proposal to launch a third campus, its first outside Toronto.

Universities interested in capacity expansions will need to demonstrate that their project would support enrolment growth of more than 1,000 full-time students in the short term, with potential to increase substantially over a longer period. For new campus proposals, the government is looking to put campuses in areas that don't currently have a university and where enrolment could grow to 10,000 in 20 years.

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