Finances dominate debate on Day One of PGSS summit

There were five different panels on five different subjects on Day One of Educational Strategies for McGill: A Summit on the Roles of Higher Education in Quebec, a two-day event which began yesterday. One common thread ran through the entire proceedings; money.
Viviane Namaste, of Concordia University's Simone de Beauvoir Institute, makes a point during the Education Summit's afternoon session titled University financing: Who should pay? / Photo: Adam Scotti.

By Neale McDevitt

There is no shortage of hot button issues in Quebec politics, be it health care, reasonable accommodation or, of course, sovereignty. But an argument could be made that, in recent years, none of those topics carry as much political clout as university finances. For proof, one need look no further than the toppling of Jean Charest and his longstanding Liberal government and the catalytic role played in their demise by the student protest against tuition hikes.

Further proof can be found in the lineup of Educational Strategies for McGill: A Summit on the Roles of Higher Education in Quebec, a two-day event co organized by the Post‐Graduate Students’ Society of McGill University, the Students’ Society of McGill and the Association for Graduate Students Employed at McGill, which began yesterday and ends later this afternoon. The event is being informally billed as a “pre-summit” to the Quebec Government’s Summit on Higher Education scheduled for February 2013.

Both days feature five panels focusing upon five main areas of discussion; University underfunding, myth or reality; University-private sector partnerships; research versus teaching; International and out-of-province students; and who should pay for university financing. The common thread throughout? Money.

“We’d all like more money for universities, but we also want better health care – we want money for so many things that at a certain point you hit a wall,” said Claude Montmarquette, president of the Centre for Interuniversity Research and Analysis of Organizations, in addressing the issue of tuition during the afternoon session titled University finances: Who should pay for it?

“But since the 1980s and 90s there has been a decrease in economic growth,” continued Montmarquette. This is why we need every citizen [including students] to contribute to the effort or else we will face a huge economic crisis and you’ll see programs start to disappear.”

Tierry Morel-Laforce, vice-president of university affairs for the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ), was adamant in his rejection of the idea of increased tuition. “People slow down their studies and even quit university because of financial hardship,” said Morel-Laforce. “We can’t deny that financial stress limits accessibility [to higher education]. Why do we want to add to that stress?”

Montmarquette, responded by noting that the government already subsidizes university education by 85 per cent, so asking taxpayers to shoulder an even greater burden is unreasonable. He argued that asking students to pay higher tuition is really only asking them to make an investment in their own future – an investment that literally pays huge dividends.

“The primary beneficiaries [of a university education] are the students… Recent statistics show in regards to a college diploma, that the average return on investment is 15 per cent – and that is considerable considering you have that for the rest of your life.”

Norma Kozhaya, head economist for the Conseil du patronat du Québec, agreed with Montmarquette, adding that asking businesses to foot more of the bill also isn’t a viable solution, as the ripple effect will end up hurting students and recent grads in the long run anyway. “An increase on tax for businesses would reduce their ability to compete with other provinces and other countries… which doesn’t help students looking for a job because [businesses] would not be able to hire as many people or pay as high a salary,” she said.

Eventually the discussion turned to the feasibility of employing the Scandinavian model in which tuition is free. Montmarquette warned that while the theory of free tuition sounds nice, in practice “nothing is free.”

“In Sweden, once you’ve done your university, you have to repay [the government] because you have to do your military service,” he said. “If you lose your job, you’re obligated to take some training or take the first job offered to you within 50 kilometers of your house… or you lose 50 per cent of your benefits. And be prepared to work past 65.

We always hear about this example ‘Look, the Scandinavian countries don’t pay anything,’ but these countries have made a choice as a society,” said Montmarquette. We can do that too, but you can’t just pick one element and not the others.”

Day Two of the McGill Summit on the Future of Higher Education will run today from noon until 5 p.m. The event will be held  in the Lev Bukhman Room, 2nd Floor, of the University Centre (3480 rue McTavish) and is open to the public. For the Summit’s schedule and lineup of panelists, click here. To watch the live webcast click here.