Principal appeals for funding, new values for higher education

Principal Heather Munroe-Blum during her speech to the Canadian Club of Montreal, Monday, June 14. / Photo: Pierre Roussel

By Jim Hynes

Evoking the “Quiet Revolution” that transformed Quebec society in the early 1960s, Principal Heather Munroe-Blum made a passionate appeal for greater funding for universities and a renewed emphasis on the importance of education, one that would allow Quebec to keep pace with the rest of the world in the “new revolution of knowledge and teaching.”

In a speech on the future of Quebec universities delivered to a Canadian Club of Montreal luncheon, Munroe-Blum called for a reassessment of the current Quebec model of higher education, which features the lowest per-student funding in Canada.

“The biggest obstacles to our universities’ success are the outdated objects of our ambition and underfunding. The gap between the funding of Quebec’s universities and the Canadian average is well over $500 million per year,” she said. “Why, when it comes to universities, are we clinging to outmoded ways of doing things, using ineffective, indeed now perversely misaligned funding mechanisms to try to achieve our common values; mechanisms that do not achieve improved access or quality education for all Quebecers?”

Despite its low tuition rates, Quebec, Munroe-Blum pointed out, lags behind much of the country when it comes to participation and graduation rates at both the secondary and post-secondary levels.

“We all need to pledge our support to get young people educated, to play our part in this effort,” she said.

Munroe-Blum applauded Quebec Finance Minister Raymond’s Bachand’s recent budget announcement of the government’s intention to increase tuition fees, linked to a review of the performance of Quebec universities.

“Minister Bachand has hit the nail on the head: addressing the chronic underfunding of universities hand-in-hand with a focus on results-driven performance,” she said. “This is the only way to boost accessibility and quality, to address equity and Quebec’s ability to compete, in North America and worldwide.

“And, if we look to jurisdictional peers, the European Commission as part of its modernization agenda for higher education, recommends that: ‘Universities should be funded more for what they do than for what they are’ by applying ‘performance-based funding.’ This model rewards achievement in measureable, accountable terms,” Munroe-Blum said.

“In this model, government, and each university, agree on a set of goals – societal goals, such as university participation and degree completion rates, and also, individual goals relevant to an institution’s unique mission – for example, service to a region, enrolment based on undergraduate student characteristics, or, research-and-graduate-student-intensity. Under such ententes, funding then is in some meaningful part, based on attaining those goals.

“In this model, government sees important goals tracked – and realized. Universities with strong, accountable leadership, and, the effective oversight of their governing boards, manage how they achieve these agree-upon goals, not government.”

The Principal also defended McGill’s decision to adopt a new model of financing the MBA program, which results in tuition fees roughly equivalent to those of McGill’s peers across Canada as necessary to achieve the objectives of fairness, equality and quality.

And she presented five suggestions on how Quebec can better support its university network:

“First: improve our graduation rates. We must raise our dismal high school graduation rates, currently sitting at 69 per cent for all of Quebec and, in Montreal, at a shocking 57 per cent. … Second, universities must be invested with the funds, and be permitted the autonomy, they require to compete, to lead on the national and world stages. These coupled with intelligent accountability, strong leadership and good governance linked to entente de partenariat, can realize full transparency and high performance.

“Third, let’s work together to leverage the global connections at the heart of every university, by helping students from outside Quebec to put down roots, and by staying connected via productive new networks with these graduates and professors who leave. Fourth, I call on each one of you, of us, as leaders, to help make education itself Quebec’s number one cause – to make it our most dearly held value, and, our greatest achievement. …

“Fifth and finally, let’s be inspired by the great spirit, the prescience and the ambition of the Quiet Revolution. The progress made during that era was phenomenal: the nationalization of electrical companies under Hydro-Québec, the building of the Manic – Outardes complex, the creation of the Caisse de dépôt et placement. We have done it before, and we can do it again.”