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Opinion: An important debate on education takes an unfortunate turn


Much ink has been spilled over tuition fees and university funding since the Quebec government announced new measures ten days ago. But the discussion paints an overly simplistic picture.

It is important to put some key issues into perspective: the tuition hikes and their likely impact, the reasons given for the increase, and some important considerations that have been ignored.

The university funding model in Quebec is complicated but the announced changes can be summed up in a few words.

The government will stop funding students from other provinces who come here to study at the undergraduate and professional master's levels: as of the fall of 2024, new students will have to pay the full cost of their education. Many will choose to study elsewhere in Canada, where they will pay much less.

The government is also setting a minimum tuition fee for international students. The money it claws back will be distributed among universities according to a formula that has not yet been disclosed. Quebec universities were not consulted in advance about either of these measures.

On its face, there is nothing inherently unconscionable about setting higher tuition fees for students who come from outside the province. Quebec’s political perspective on university funding rests on the assumption that very low tuition fees increase access to higher education, and it is fair to limit the scope of this benefit to residents of the province.

As it is, Canadian students already pay three times as much as Quebec students, and international students pay as much as ten times the rate for residents. The new measures will have no impact on international students, who already pay more than the new minimum fees, but they will double the price tag for Canadian students.

Unfortunately, this move will make Quebec university education decidedly unattractive for many. Moreover, it sends a message that undermines our conception of higher education in Quebec as inclusive and open to the world.

As stated by the Minister of Higher Education, the primary purpose behind the changes is to achieve some equilibrium in the distribution of financial benefits that are drawn from out-of-province tuition fees. Again, there is nothing inherently unconscionable in this objective. It is true that some Quebec universities have a greater capacity to attract out-of-province and international students.

It is legitimate, and not unreasonable, for the Quebec government to redistribute some of this windfall, a positive outcome of the excellent reputation that our universities enjoy in Canada and on the world scene. It's just a question of how – and how much. Any measure that jeopardizes the very existence of a university or weakens it to the point where it can no longer be what it was should be ruled out.

That said, the government’s announcement has been accompanied by some unfortunate, and even derogatory comments from all sides of the debate, that feed linguistic tensions in our communities. It is regrettable that what should have been an opportunity for an important debate should take such a turn.

Students from outside Quebec have been portrayed either as a variable budget item, as a threat to the French language, as freeloaders or as cash cows. Conversely, supporters of the policy choices made by the Quebec government have been lumped together and depicted as intolerant. None of this is accurate.

As I see it, students from outside Quebec should instead be seen as people who enhance the excellence, quality, diversity and relevance of our universities, just as Quebec students do. Universities the world over recognize the vital contribution made by people from beyond their borders. All Quebec universities need to attract talented people to Quebec, help them master our language, expose them to the diversity of francophone cultures, integrate them into our society and keep them here—or, failing that, make them ambassadors for Quebec wherever they go in the world after studying here.

Finally, one important dimension has been left out of the debate in the past few days. All Quebec universities want to contribute to the advancement of knowledge and to apply the best thinking to the major challenges of our time, working with leading researchers around the world. None wants to confine itself within local boundaries.

To carry out these two missions, universities need the support of the public. The choice to keep tuition fees very low should come with a principled commitment to make up the difference with public funds, which the Quebec government has not yet been able to do.

And the new measures it has announced won’t add any funding to the envelope allocated to Quebec's university network; they simply redistribute existing resources, with perhaps marginal benefits.

The real issues—the role our universities, French and English, should play in Quebec's development and Quebec’s place in the concert of nations, and the resources we want to devote to this great endeavour—remain unresolved.

- Daniel Jutras is the rector of Université de Montréal Top Stories

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