By Pascal Zamprelli
Over 125 stakeholders in Quebec’s system of higher education met in Quebec City on Monday for “Rencontres des partenaires en education,” a day of workshops and meetings aimed at finding solutions to the problems that ail Quebec universities in three major areas: finances, accessibility, and university performance and accountability.
Organised and chaired by Quebec’s Ministers of Education and Finance, Line Beauchamp and Raymond Bachand, the meeting brought together representatives from universities, colleges, unions, and the business community.
Principal Heather Munroe-Blum attended on behalf of McGill, and began her first of three interventions, on financing, by stating that an immediate reinvestment in education was crucial to ensure both quality and accessibility. “Elsewhere in Canada and abroad, others have taken this direction and we must also pursue this path. We cannot afford to hesitate,” she said.
A quality university system is key to ensuring Quebec’s social, economic, and cultural development, she continued, and raising tuition rates is a necessary element of any solution to address the situation of chronic underfunding.
“The objective of the members of the La Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec (CREPUQ) is to ensure that every student who has the desire and the capacity can obtain a university degree and to ensure that Quebec universities are among the best in the world.” she said. “To do this, we must increase the total level of financing for the university system.”
CREPUQ, which often acts as the representative of all Quebec universities in dealings with the government, is proposing a yearly tuition increase of just over $500 for the next three years, bringing tuition levels in line with those of the late 60s, in terms of real dollars. She noted, however, that if any tuition increase were accompanied by a reduction in the government’s financial support, it would create a “perverse and unjust” situation.
Munroe-Blum’s comments came moments after a number of stakeholders representing students, unions, and professors walked out of the meetings, claiming that, given their opposition to tuition increase, it would be futile to participate in a debate on what form an increase should take. They left to join thousands of protesters camped outside the National Assembly.
Many of the remaining participants expressed disappointment with their decision to boycott the talks, and Minister Bachand reminded all present that a tuition increase had been announced in the latest provincial budget, and that it was clear the day’s discussion would revolve around the “how” of the tuition increase, including retaining accessibility, as opposed to any further discussion of “if.”
Indeed, much of the discussion was dedicated to exploring ways to ensure higher tuition does not negatively affect accessibility. In her second intervention, Munroe-Blum noted the importance of allotting a certain percentage of any net revenue derived from a tuition increase to financial aid. CREPUQ’s position, for instance, is to reinvest 25% of tuition increases into bursaries for students most in need.
Minister Beauchamp reiterated later that both reinvesting a part of tuition increases in financial aid and refraining from decreasing government funds in the wake of an increase were among those areas where broad consensus could be said to have been reached.
Other interesting ideas to improve accessibility, such as loan repayment based on income, and encouraging among Quebec families a culture of saving for education, were also discussed.
On the issue of the performance and accountability of universities, Munroe-Blum suggested that new accountability rules were unnecessary given the multiple accounting procedures already in place.
“The challenge in terms of accountability is not to superimpose additional layers of data or indicators or even less to add additional players, but rather to better use the mass information already available,” she said.
On that point, Minister Beauchamp later explained that she heard the message loud and clear from many participants: “Not more accounting, but better accounting,” she said. “There is no appetite for increased bureaucracy but rather for increased performance, increased quality, better guarantees” that monies are being well-spent.
While she spoke of a “common core” of performance elements that apply to the whole of the university system, she agreed with many university representatives that there is room for bilateral partnership agreements to deal with the specificities of each institution.
Despite disagreements, participants in the Rencontres managed to get through a very loaded agenda, share their preoccupations and learn more about the positions of other stakeholders. It was certainly an important exercise for the government itself.
“This was a very useful day for me,” concluded Minister Beauchamp, “and for the decision-making process that must occur over the coming weeks.”