01/21/2016 09:49 EST | Updated 01/21/2017 05:12 EST

Niagara, Algonquin Colleges Run Male-Only Campuses In Saudi Arabia

Algonquin public relations spokesman Phil Gaudreau refused to provide any update.

TORONTO — Two publicly funded Ontario colleges have opened campuses in Saudi Arabia that don't allow female students in classes, but the province's minister of post-secondary education says he doesn't have any concerns about it.

Niagara College offers tourism, hospitality and business courses at its campus in Taif, and Algonquin College offers 10 programs, including business, accounting and electrical engineering technology, at a campus in the city of Jazan.

In addition, Toronto-based Centennial College offers a corporate training program for men only in Saudi Arabia.

The Ontario campuses in Saudi Arabia, and all educational programs in the kingdom, operate under Sharia law and prohibit the education of men and women in the same classes.

In 2013, Ottawa-based Algonquin College opened a campus in Jazan, Saudi Arabia. (Facebook/Algonquin College)

Colleges and Universities Minister Reza Moridi said decisions on the operation of a campus, including student composition, are up to each college's board of governors.

"I understand and appreciate the perspectives that have been raised in recent weeks about these educational activities,'' Moridi said in a statement to The Canadian Press.

"I am proud of the advancements that Ontario's colleges are making in bringing our high-quality programming around the world.''

The government provides $7.8 billion in funding to 24 community colleges in the province, which accounts for only about 40 per cent of their budgets. They get the rest of the money from tuition fees and other sources.

"They're desperate for ways to generate some dollars,'' said NDP post-secondary critic Peggy Sattler. "But we shouldn't have Ontario colleges partnering with repressive regimes that have a history of gender-based violence.''

"They're desperate for ways to generate some dollars.''

Algonquin College announced in 2013 that it hoped to have 2,000 students at its campus in Saudi Arabia and expected to generate annual revenues of more than $25 million. But a spokesman for the Ottawa-based college refused Thursday to provide any update on the school's operations.

"We have no new information to provide other than what is already publicly available,'' Phil Gaudreau said in an email.

Niagara College said opening a Saudi campus was an opportunity to expand access to education there and enhance its own reputation, and it expects to generate $4 million over five years from its classes in Taif.

"The campus opportunity that most closely aligns with our key areas of specialization is the campus with a hospitality and tourism focus,'' said college spokeswoman Susan McConnell. "This campus provides education to male students.''

The Ontario Public Sector Employees Union calls the establishment of the Canadian campuses in Saudi Arabia an endorsement of discrimination against women.

"The Wynne government's shameful neglect and underfunding of its 24 community colleges has forced them to seek alternative sources of funding, even to making deals with a country that carries out mass executions as a means of stifling democracy,'' said OPSEU president Smokey Thomas.

Ontario Public Service Employees Union President, Warren (Smokey) Thomas speaks to the media regarding the OPSEU new contact talks on Nov. 7, 2008, in Toronto. (Nathan Denette/CP)

"For a government that claims it wants to close the wage gap between men and women, it's highly problematic that it won't allow women into two of its colleges.''

The controversy comes as the federal government faces pressure to kill a $15-billion sale of Ontario-made LAV3 vehicles to the Saudi kingdom.

The sale came under fire after the Saudi's executed 47 alleged terrorists Jan. 1, but the Trudeau government says it won't cancel the deal made by the previous Conservative administration.

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