Ontario’s ombudsman calls for independent oversight of universities

Ontario ombudsman André Marin released his annual report today, and renewed his call for independent oversight of the province’s universities.

Referring to the so-called MUSH sector — municipalities, universities, public schools, hospitals or children’s aid societies — Marin stated these agencies “have become almost a law unto themselves … they have carved themselves a nice, comfortable niche, a zone of immunity against oversight.”

Ontario’s universities are immune from investigation by Marin’s office. If a student feels that their university has treated them unfairly, they are left with no recourse in Ontario. Students in Newfoundland & Labrador and British Columbia are eligible to receive assistance from their ombudsman.

Marin wrote that his office received 109 complaints about Ontario’s colleges of applied arts and technology. Marin can deal with these complaints because Ontario colleges, unlike universities, are considered to be government agencies.

One complaint featured in the annual report involved a learning-disabled man who started taking courses as a mature student at a college in 1999. The man failed several courses and repeated them until he successfully received passing grades. In 2007, he compiled enough credits to graduate. But because he failed to meet the four-year completion requirement, he was not granted a diploma.

Upon receiving the complaint, the ombudsman contacted the college. After the school reviewed the student’s records, officials agreed with the ombudsman that it was unlikely the man was ever advised of the requirement to complete his courses within a time limit.

The college sent the student a letter of apology and awarded him his diploma.

If an university student filed the same complaint, the ombudsman would have to turn the complainant away — as he did 31 times in the last year.

Ontario’s student-loan program was the subject of 142 complaints last year, ranking in the top 20 for number of complaints filed against a provincial government organization — tied with the Ontario Human Rights Commission for 17th place.

The Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities was the subject of more complaints than all but three other ministries.
The provincial government immediately rejected Marin’s call for more oversight, pointing to other measures of accountability, at least in the hospital sector.

“The level of accountability that hospitals have right now, with the combination of community-based governance, local health-integration networks, and the power of the provincial auditor for investigation — (that) really is a pretty comprehensive regime of accountability,” said Health minister George Smitherman.

Both the Conservatives and New Democrats are calling on the government to take the advice of the ombudsman and expand oversight to the MUSH sector.

with files from the Canadian Press