Monday and Tuesday of this week, I participated in the Summit on Higher Education convened by the Government of Quebec. Some 60-plus participants commented and exchanged views on four priority themes: quality and governance, research and collaboration, financing, and accessibility. The exchanges were thoughtful and many divergent points of view were expressed.
I intervened on behalf of McGill and the charter universities (those not part of the Université du Québec system), with three formal interventions. The texts of these interventions can be found on the Red Blog.
The Government seized the opportunity during the Summit to announce formally certain high-level directions, which are essentially those that have been hinted at or announced already:
• New legislation regarding universities
• A new National (advisory) Council for Universities
• A new Quebec research policy and a forum on research
• Some reinvestment in the system from 2014 to 2019 (back-end loaded) and a revision to the funding formula
• Indexation of tuition fees and possibly of ancillary fees, as well as an increase in student financial aid
• Individual agreements between the Government and each university focusing on goals and accountability
Working groups are being convened to examine each of these areas in more depth and to make recommendations. For more information on these, I invite you to consult this summary of the Summit outcomes.
In my last presentation at the Summit, I again advocated for the Government to reverse the debilitating cuts that are putting the quality of education and research in Quebec at risk. I noted again that these cuts are hitting an already underfunded university system, and will have a real impact on people and jobs, services and support to students and professors, and program offerings.
The funding promises over the long term, which will be contingent on Quebec’s economic growth and therefore uncertain, also ignored the fact that our universities have been significantly underfunded for a decade and more, and that the imposed cuts are devastating for our University. The crisis is now; the needs are now, not down the road.
Some of you may have seen news reports over the last two days that the heads of Quebec’s universities reached an agreement with the government before the Summit to reduce the cuts. The Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec (CREPUQ) has been engaged in ongoing negotiations with the Government for many weeks and the negotiations have recently accelerated. Contrary to what the reports suggested, no deal was reached before the Summit, as my interventions demonstrated.
Yesterday, we received from CREPUQ a proposal that the Provost and the Vice-Principal Administration and Finance are now analysing in detail. Our impression is that the solutions proposed by the Government will have the effect of providing certain flexibility, with respect, primarily, to giving us the possibility of spreading the required budget cuts over several years without being penalized financially by the Government for incurring large deficits.
Simply put, it is a permission to amortise our debt incurred over several years. Yet, in the end, the only thing that has been clearly and consistently communicated is that over the next 14 months McGill will receive nearly $40 million less in government funding than we were told to expect when we prepared our multi-year budget plan last Spring.
The senior team and I understand completely the anxiety many in our community are feeling as we face this uncertain future, and we share your concerns. I want to reassure you that we are working hard to prepare a concrete and effective plan to respond to the difficult budget situation. There are many difficult decisions to be taken prior to determining our budget with the Board of Governors at the end of April. We will make every effort to lessen the human impact these budget measures will have on McGill, but it would be unrealistic to hope that they will not be felt.
An unwavering commitment to excellence in all that we do and a sincere appreciation for the contributions of a high-quality public university system are shared values of all members of our McGill community. I encourage you to express your opinions – whatever they are – in order to keep public attention alive and engaged concerning the role of higher education and university research for our society.
Professor Heather Munroe-Blum
Principal and Vice-Chancellor, McGill University