Funding, autonomy dominate first day of Summit

The government's much-anticipated Summit on Higher Education opened today in Montreal. Not surprisingly, much of the discussion focused on finances.
Principal Heather Munroe-Blum speaks at the Summit on Higher Education earlier today.

By Neale McDevitt and Jim Hynes

Principal Heather Munroe-Blum wasted no time having her voice heard in the opening session of the Summit on Higher Education Monday.

“As [Education] Minister [Pierre Duchesne] said yesterday, our universities are well managed,” said Munroe-Blum, the first speaker in the conference’s opening session. “We are opposed to any action that casts doubt upon the mandates, the responsibilities or the makeup of our Boards.”

Munroe-Blum’s comments were timely as, just minutes before, Premier Pauline Marois announced the government’s plan to adjust university governance. Despite the government’s insistence that universities will retain their autonomy, the plan, which includes the creation of a council of universities, a five-step process to make CEGEPs and universities more accountable and the drafting of a bill outlining the legal framework for the management of universities seems to imply increased government involvement.

The Principal, speaking on behalf of the Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec (CREPUQ), also talked about quality and accessibility. “All students must have access to a quality education,” she said. “Quality and accessibility – this is a good project for our society.”

Françoise Betrand of the Fédération des chambres de commerce du Québec, echoed Munroe-Blum’s concerns. In a recent pre-Summit meeting, the Federation’s Board stressed “the importance of protecting our universities diversity. This proposed legal framework runs the risk of making everyone the same. Our richness is derived from our diversity.”

Marois said she has no illusions that the Summit will be a panacea for what she called “the social crisis” that was triggered by last year’s student unrest. “This exercise does not aim to resolve everything in a few hours,” she said. “The summit is an occasion to re-establish the dialogue, to rebuild bridges, to re-weave the links between us.”

Part of that dialogue however will come in the form of vocal opposition, as witnessed by Coalition Avenir du Québec leader François Legault’s opening volley. “The first thing that should be done is to cancel the $250-million cuts because it goes in the face of what we’re striving to achieve, which is excellence,” said Legault. “It serves no purpose to say we’ll reinvest in two years. We have a minority government, so we have to be realistic. What’s important is 2012-13 and 2013-14.

“Stop putting money in structures,” Legault said in reference to the government’s proposal to create a council of universities. “Put the money in services.”

It was a refrain that was heard from many of the more than 60 participants at the Summit. “Something worth highlighting here is that during the course of the four pre-summit meetings… the quality [of Quebec’s universities] was never questioned. But, as it has been mentioned by several people here today, that quality could be threatened if the [universities] don’t get the necessary funding required to meet their objectives,” said Yves-Thomas Dorval of the Conseil de patronat de Québec.

Martine Desjardins, president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, expressed her support for the new university council, saying the FEUQ hoped the body had more teeth than to stand as just an advisory board and could make recommendations to the Minister.

In the day’s second session, on strengthening research as well as collaboration between institutions, the government put forth three proposals: $340 million of investments in the next seven years; $15 million to support collaborations between CEGEPs and universities, and finally $8.3 million to support First Nations and special needs students. It also indicated it would hold a series of meetings in April to develop a provincial research and innovation policy.

“Our objectives are to strengthen the research capacity of our institutions so that Quebec will have everything it needs to be among the leaders,” Marois said.

Speaking after the Premier, Université de Sherbrooke Rector and current CREPUQ President Luce Samoisette, asked if the promised investment was part of the $1.7 billion previosuly promised by the Marois government to universities by 2018-19, and wondered what would be left of that sum after all of the new proposals, deficit reductions and budgets cuts were added up.

Legault, meanwhile, made an impassioned plea on behalf of Quebec’s research-intensive universities, illustrating how poorly funded they were compared to their counterparts in the rest of Canada when it came to per-student research dollars ($18,000 at the Université de Montreal vs $44,000 at the University of Calgary).

Following the second session, Legault was also behind the first controversy of the day, telling reporters the Summit had this far been a waste of time, with everyone avoiding the “elephant in the room” – the issue of underfunding, out of fear of angering the government.

Discussions during the day’s third session, which focused on the question of funding universities in the context of Quebecers’ capacity to pay, centered around three more government proposals – the previously promised $1.7 billion investment in universities over seven years; a revised funding model with an emphasis on support for first-generation university students, and the intention to target 75 per cent of the investments to “precise national objectives” such as improving teaching quality and graduation rates by through the hiring of more professors.

“We want, and we have the will to reinvest in higher education. So I invite everyone to work together for the stability, permanence, efficiency and fairness in financing of our universities. We believe that this financing should be divided equally among our establishments,” Marois said.

Legault resurrected his “elephant in the room,” saying all the talk of investing in universities was fine and well, but that the $250 million of budgets imposed by the government risked inflicting serious damage.

“If we are really serious about how we value higher education, the first thing we should do is agree together to cancel those $250 million in cuts.”

Legault also objected to the government’s concept of equality in funding.

“There are great universities all over the world with higher tuition fees…” he said. “In Quebec, we cannot afford to have 18 world-class universities, but nor can we allow ourselves to have none.”