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Toronto York University will push ahead with Markham campus despite funding cancellation

York University said it remains committed to launching a new campus in Markham despite the provincial government’s decision to pull funding for the project just weeks before construction was slated to begin.

Following an emergency meeting Friday afternoon, York and its partners issued a joint statement saying they remain “steadfast in their commitment to seeing this project through to a successful completion.”

The $252-million project was to be funded primarily with money from the provincial government. It was one of three Ontario universities whose plans to build new satellite campuses in the Greater Toronto Area were scuttled this week. Ryerson University and Wilfrid Laurier University also had expansion plans thrown into doubt when the new Progressive Conservative government in Ontario announced it would not follow through on the previous government’s funding commitments.

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Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Merrilee Fullerton said earlier this week that the government had no choice but to cut the $305-million plans to expand the three universities given the state of the province’s finances. But there was room to discuss the situation, she said, leaving the door open to some kind of provincial assistance if a business case could be made. York has already spent millions in preparation for the start of construction in December.

York president Rhonda Lenton, Seneca president David Agnew, Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti and York Region chief executive Wayne Emmerson said Friday that they remain “equally committed to this vitally important project” and that they will explore “all possible options to build this campus.”

“A new campus in Markham Centre will be a critical economic generator and community asset for Markham, York Region and Ontario,” the four partners said.

The new campus was expected to serve 4,500 students by 2022, with further growth expected. It proposed to offer programs in commerce, entrepreneurship, digital media and medical biotechnology, among others.

In an interview earlier this week, Dr. Lenton said it was unclear whether it would be possible to complete such a project in the absence of $127-million in provincial funding. She said one possibility would be to seek additional money from Markham and the other municipalities in York Region, as well as from private donors. The school had already received commitments for about half of the $35-million it hoped to raise privately for the Markham campus. York could also consider taking on more debt to finance the project, she said.

The university could also break the construction down into smaller pieces and roll out the new campus in phases. Another option would be to start offering programs in the region without permanent infrastructure but with borrowed instructional space, Dr. Lenton said.

The university’s research has shown that students in the fast-growing outer band of the GTA want to study closer to home. About 26 per cent of York students are the first in their family to attend university, and 75 per cent work part-time while pursuing a degree, Dr. Lenton said.

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“We are expecting enrollment growth over the next five years. There will be demand and that demand will have to be met one way or the other,” she said.

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