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Q&A: Quebec higher education minister on tuition hikes, new French rules for English universities

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The Quebec government announced its new plan Thursday to raise tuition fees by 33 per cent for non-Quebec university students and to force those students to master an intermediate level of French by graduation.

McGill University has come out against the new measure, calling it a "targeted attack" on English universities that will end up hurting their bottom line and turning prospective students to other provinces. 

Graham Carr, Concordia University's president and vice-chancellor, agrees.

"What the government has effectively done is set us up to fail. They've set objectives that are not realizable, they're not supported by any data," he told CTV News. 

Higher Education Minister Pascale Déry agreed to an interview with CTV News Montreal anchor Maya Johnson to discuss the rationale behind her new plan and to address the concerns raised by Quebec's English universities.

This article has been edited for clarity and length. Watch the video above for the full interview.

CTV: It's been two months almost to the day since that initial press conference where you made this announcement. The plan initially was to almost double the fees. Now, you settled on $12,000 instead of $17,000. And there's the exception for Bishop's University. Isn't that an admission that perhaps you went too far the first time and there wasn't enough consultation, given that you've had to backtrack essentially?

Déry: I would not say that. Actually, it's beneficial for all of us today to have those kinds of measures and adjustments [and] a francization plan. We have to go back to May 15, the last time I spoke with the universities and I sent them a letter. We were sharing our concerns about frustration, about the retention of Canadians outside Quebec and about deregulation, the fact that there was an imbalance between the French and English universities. This was all shared at the beginning of the mandate. And then after that, we've seen a couple of initiatives here and there from Concordia, McGill, but there wasn't really an official commitment from the universities until that time where we sat down with Premier Legault and the universities where they actually shared with us an initiative of francization.

That was really a big step because all along we wanted obviously the anglophone universities to francize. I mean, this is a big step for the universities to admit that there is a decline of French in Quebec, particularly in Montreal, that they want to commit to francize students on campuses. So for us, it's very important that I took that opportunity to analyze that transition plan and we thought it was not as ambitious. I mean, it was 40 per cent in a three-year timeline. There were a lot of positions and we asked for clarifications, we had exchanges a few times and we came to the conclusion to have an ambitious target, which is 80% today.

CTV: McGill University's principal says, you know, we came to you in good faith, we said we're going to make this change. It's historic, we've never done anything like this before, offering this 40 per cent. And now you turn around and you double it, which is something that's unattainable for us and it really feels less like a fair compromise and more like a slap in the face. How do you respond to that?

Déry: I think we need to put the things back into context. I mean, that 80 per cent, we need to understand in that 80 per cent, you have 17 or 18 per cent that can be added to that target, which is the francophones that they have on campuses right now. You have French [students], you have Belgian [students]. These students could be added to that target. So, for me, that target is a little lower, because about 50 per cent of the students we looked at come from a country where they have some French. They don't master French but they do have some French. So for me, it's important to put the target a little higher to make sure we get to students that can francize. They actually suggested us to francize at level 6. We told them it was too hard, not realistic, which is down to level 5.

Quebec Higher Education Minister Pascale Déry speaks to CTV News Montreal anchor Maya Johnson on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2023, about the government's new tuition and French-language proficiency plans for English universities beginning in the 2025 school year. (CTV News)

So I think it's achievable and we're going to be there to help them. I'm personally going to be there to help to make sure we deploy and we implement these measures and the installation plan with all three universities.

CTV: During that initial press conference on Oct. 13 where you were with your colleague, the minister responsible for the French language, Jean-François Roberge, he basically said most students from outside Quebec leave after graduation, but he blamed those same students for anglicizing Montreal and contributing to the decline of French in Quebec. How can they do that if they're not here over the long term? Which one is it? Because those two statements seem to be contradictory.

Déry: I think 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're here during the program, these students do not master French, so they do anglicize Montreal. We can't see this as an attack on anglophones, it's just that it is protecting French. I think we need to understand that there is an issue of [protecting French], particularly in Montreal, and they've acknowledged it and they committed to help us francize the students and I think it's a big step for all of us.

I think at the end of the day it's going to be beneficial for the Quebec economy. These students will be francized and we need to understand that the target of 80 per cent is over time, it's gradual. So they're going to start in 2025. The students that are targeted are only from the first cycle — students from [the rest of Canada] and international [students] in 2025 and it's going to be over time. They're there for three, four years. So over the program, they can be francized. It's up to universities to tell us which students they could actually get. If there are students that are interested, we can target the students that we are interested in. We can maybe change the recruitment model to have some students that maybe master French better, and it's going to be easier for the universities to get to the students they want and they need to be able to enter them in the target.

CTV: You said this isn't an attack on anglophones. But for a lot of people, it is perceived that way. And some say this seems to be like a political knee-jerk reaction. The PQ is surging ahead of the CAQ in the polls, which is something that we haven't seen in a very long time. The premier's personal popularity is plummeting and all of these measures that appear to be targeting the anglophone community in Quebec are aimed at shoring up support amongst nationalists who may be turning now to the PQ. How do you respond to that?

Déry: I've been working with universities and I've been sharing those concerns way before that. Since I came into the function at the beginning of the mandate, this was the first thing I've shared with the universities: my concern about the French among the English universities, the Canadians outside Quebec, the retention of these students that were not staying, the international [students]. It was all shared at the beginning of the mandate. So this was back back in May, back in April when I first met with these universities.

I'm sure we can work together, as I told them and as I've said in a letter this morning that was published, I'm ready to support financially, administratively as well, to be able to help them implement all these measures eventually, but I'm pretty sure we're going to be able to work together and make sure we francize as many students as we can like this. They can stay here and work in Quebec, work in Montreal and be integrated in society. 

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