PGSS looks for common ground for higher education stakeholders

Jonathan Mooney, the Secretary-General of the Post-Graduate Students’ Society, looks at the PGSS' summit on higher education held this past December and how it relates to the upcoming Summit organized by the provincial government.
Jonathan Mooney, a PhD candidate in Chemistry and Secretary-General of McGill’s Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) hopes that the McGill community can present a unified front at the upcoming Summit on higher education. / Photo: Owen Egan

By Jonathan Mooney

On Dec. 3 and 4, 2012, the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) organized a summit on higher education in preparation for the Quebec-wide Summit taking place next week. Our goal was to provide a forum for critical discussion about the pressing issues facing Quebec universities.

In the course of the tuition protests last year, there were two distinct discourses playing out about the role of higher education in Quebec. We felt there were few opportunities for the McGill community to hear from and direct questions to stakeholders in these discourses and that it might be useful to bring people with different perspectives together for a more nuanced discussion.

Our summit was organized into two parts: on Day One, experts from the community (student associations, think-tanks, CREPUQ, etc.) presented on five themes, including underfunding; international and out-of-province students; university financing; research, teaching, and support staff; and university-industry partnerships.

On Day Two, members of the McGill community from various backgrounds (students, professors, administrators, etc.) discussed the same issues from the McGill perspective.

I was particularly pleased to see that, on the panel regarding who should fund higher education, there was an acknowledgement from all parties that the government should pay the highest share. Principal Heather Munroe-Blum explicitly rejected a move to American levels of tuition because of the effect it would have on accessibly. She also acknowledged the strain that increasing tuition places on middle-class families.

The Principal even stated that if government could pay for a quality, accessible education there would be no debates about tuition – an implicit acknowledgement of the underlying value of the student movement’s goal of free education.

On the other side, Mariève Isabel (former PGSS VP-External) discussed the importance of working together now to improve Quebec’s student financial aid system – a topic students don’t often discuss, but which is also important when we talk about accessibility. SSMU VP External Robin Reid-Fraser also talked about the many barriers to accessibility to postsecondary education and how we need to work as a society to break down all these barriers.

On the topics of research and teaching, all parties acknowledged that teaching students and performing research can and should go hand in hand, as both are elements of what Professor Darin Barney called “free and studious inquiry,” which the University’s purpose is to promote.

Regarding underfunding, all parties acknowledged that Quebec universities could benefit from greater funding and the focus of the discussion turned to what metrics could be used to measure the funding levels required and what commitments the University could make that the community will support regarding where any new funding will be used.

Regarding out-of-province and international students, the panelists all acknowledged the value that international students bring to McGill and to Quebec society. They were also able to agree on the importance of building links between these students and the community outside the “McGill bubble” and offering accessible, affordable French courses, as well as the need to look closely at tuition and financial-aid policies for international students to ensure we maintain a socioeconomically diverse student population.

I think our summit showed there is common ground and, like some of the discussion at the government’s recent consultation regarding the quality of education, which showed diverse groups arguing that a new body to assess quality composed of stakeholders in university education should be created, we might find agreement on certain principles.

I’m hoping that different groups in the McGill community might agree on some broad principles in preparation for the Quebec education Summit so that we can make a stronger case for these principles at the Summit.

Jonathan Mooney is the Secretary-General of the Post-Graduate Students’ Society.