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Concordia and McGill taking Quebec to court over tuition policies

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Concordia and McGill universities are suing the Quebec government in separate lawsuits over the government's new tuition policies, which would raise rates for out-of-province and international students hoping to study in the province.

A letter from Concordia University President and Vice-Chancellor Graham Carr notes the institution does "not enter the process lightly" and it "tried to engage with the government in good faith on the tuition issue throughout the fall."

"Although the government reduced its initial proposed tuition increase for out-of-province students, it never worked with us in any substantive way to hear, let alone address, our wide-ranging concerns," the letter reads.

Concordia argues that Quebec should have considered the values inherent in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in making its decision, including the equality of the English and French linguistic groups and the protection of Quebec's English-speaking minority.

McGill is contesting the increase on the grounds that it is "discriminatory," that it results from an "unreasonable exercise" of power by the Minister of Higher Education, and that it was adopted "without proper consultation."

A letter from McGill President and Vice-Chancellor Deep Saini said that a unanimous Feb. 15 vote at a special board meeting launched a legal challenge against the tuition increases and changes to the funding model for international students.

The legal action does not target the 80 per cent francization targets that Quebec announced.

"We tried our utmost to work in partnership with the government," said Saini. "We would have greatly preferred not to do this, but we have run out of viable alternatives. Although these measures necessitate a vigorous response, we remain committed to partnering with the Government of Quebec."

Tuition hikes imposed by the Quebec government promise to raise fees by 30 per cent from $9,000 to a minimum of $12,000 per year for out-of-province students.

International students now have to pay a base rate of $20,000, with the government collecting $3,000 in fees.

The tuition fee increases are set to be implemented at the start of the 2024-25 academic year.

The lawsuits call into question the government's new funding model for international students, under which institutions will have to pay $20,000 for each international student admitted, with the money going to French-language universities.

The Quebec government is also demanding that students graduating from English-language universities be evaluated at a Level 5 on the Quebec scale of French-language proficiency by the end of their undergraduate degree program.

Carr told CTV News that the university feels the Quebec government has a responsibility under the Canadian Charter to respond to minority educational institutions as representatives of the minority anglophone community in Quebec.

"They also had a responsibility in delivering new policies, to ensure that those policies did as little harm as possible to the institutions," said Carr.

The universities are asking the court to stay the government measures, which would suspend the policies.

"We're taking this step because we need to defend Concordia as a university, and we need to defend the values which are important to the university, values of diversity, values of accessibility, both of which are put under threat by the government's actions," said Carr.

Quebec Higher Education Minister Pascale Déry told CTV News in December that the government was frustrated with the decline of French in Montreal and the imbalance between French and English universities in terms of their French-speaking student bodies.

"We need to understand that the universities have acknowledged that there is a problem of anglicization in Montreal, and they do know that they have to play a role because when they [students] are here during the program, these students do not master French, so they do anglicize Montreal," said Déry. "We can't see this as an attack on anglophones, it's just that it is protecting French."

Dery's office said it was looking at the cases from Concordia and McGill, but would not comment on the case as it is before the courts.

Initially, the government had threatened to almost double tuition fees from $8,992 to $17,000, but later reduced the increase to $3,000, making the total price tag for tuition around $12,000.

But institutions say they have seen a significant drop in applications since Quebec announced the tuition hike in October and warned that it could trigger a sharp drop in enrolments and devastate their finances.

-- With files from The Canadian Press.

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