Panic over "privatization"

by Daniel McCabe

The dust is just starting to settle following a frantic few days in which McGill administrators and staff fielded phone calls from Quebec government officials, current and prospective students and journalists from across the country in reaction to an article published in La Presse last week.

The La Presse piece stated that McGill was considering privatizing some of its programs in management and medicine. The headline was even more dramatic--alleging that the University's Faculty of Medicine was on the verge of privatization. The paper followed up that story with an editorial stating that McGill's MBA program would soon start charging all students $14,000 a year. Local radio stations began repeating the newspaper's claims. Then the story went national.

"It became a total media frenzy with journalists reporting on what other journalists had written," says University Relations director Kate Williams. "It demonstrated the power of the press--and the dangers involved when they get a story wrong."

Williams says her staff "must have arranged 50 media interviews in the space of two days." URO wasn't the only department kept busy. Admissions staff had to deal with students worried that tuition fees were about to skyrocket. Staff in the MBA program dealt with applicants upset that McGill was apparently about to dramatically raise its tuition levels. The Faculty of Medicine's associate deans found themselves reassuring a contingent of nervous medical students.

Much of the media coverage,especially at the start, was woefully off the mark. The University--the Faculty of Management in particular--is launching a handful of high-tuition, specialized programs. But tuition isn't going up in any of McGill's regular undergraduate or graduate programs.

Medical and Canadian MBA students will pay the same tuition fees next year as they are paying this year (barring any unexpected change in Quebec government policy). Foreign students in the MBA program, however, might face higher fees.

If the government allowed tuition to rise, McGill would likely seek an increase that would make the University's fees comparable to the Canadian national average (currently about $2,300).

Vice-Principal (Planning and Resources) François Tavenas is still seething over the La Presse pieces, calling the articles "bloody nonsense. That headline (on the first story) was absolute garbage."

The Faculty of Management is involved in four new graduate programs aimed at specialized markets which charge tuition fees high enough to cover their costs. One program, created with the Department of Economics, is for policymakers and economists in developing countries. The Master's Program in Economic Policy Management costs over $44,000 for two years, but students generally receive support for their studies from their governments and from fellowships offered by the World Bank and the African Capacity Building Foundation.

An International Master's Program in Management, created in large part by management professor Henry Mintzberg, involves four other universities in England, France, India and Japan. The program is aimed at senior company executives who want to learn more about conducting business internationally. The tuition rate is $30,000 and the companies will foot the bill.

Management and the Faculty of Engineering are offering a new Master's in Manufacturing Management targeted towards mid-level managers involved in production or manufacturing. The faculty will also begin offering its MBA program in India in the fall, with students spending about a quarter of their time at McGill. Tuition for the manufacturing degree will be about $12,500. The fee for the Indian MBA has yet to be decided.

"These programs just couldn't be offered within the usual funding mechanisms," says Dean of Management Wallace Crowston. The amount of money McGill typically receives from the government for a graduate program couldn't cover the cost of the programs the faculty had in mind, so it went another route. It eschewed backing from the Quebec government altogether, opting instead to charge students (or their sponsors) the full cost of the courses.

Of the international master's program in management, Crowston says, "That program is attracting senior executives from highly profitable corporations. The companies are willing to pay our price for what we're offering them. It makes no sense at all to suggest that taxpayers should contribute to a program like this to make it more affordable."

Crowston thinks the new programs will break even initially, and hopes they might eventually result in new revenues for his faculty. That would be good news for everyone at the business school.

"If these programs are successful in generating revenues, that money will get fed back into our existing programs. This isn't a company--profits aren't paid out to shareholders. Whatever money we bring in will go towards the overall quality of this faculty."

Crowston believes the new programs will benefit his faculty in other ways. "We're bringing an international constituency to McGill. Thanks to the master's program in economic policy management, we have people here who will likely become senior government officials or advisers in Africa, in East Asia and in Eastern Europe. Our faculty is interacting with them and there have been plenty of opportunities for these students to get together with our regular graduate students. Many of our students come here because of our focus on international business. This enhances what we're able to offer them."

Crowston acknowledges that students had their concerns about the new programs. "Students are worried that our best teachers will become so deeply involved in these programs that they won't have time to teach in the BComm or MBA programs any more. That's not going to happen. The B.Comm and MBA programs are our bread and butter and we won't do anything to jeopardize their quality. I've given Senate my assurance on that subject."

Tavenas has been involved in discussions in the University's Subcommittee on Planning and Priorities aimed at coming up with a policy framework for faculties interested in establishing specialized programs involving high tuition fees. The subcommittee recently established guidelines for how tuition fee levels should be set and how the funds resulting from such programs should be managed. Tavenas expects those guidelines to go to Senate soon. The subcommittee is currently establishing academic guidelines for these programs.

An editorial in Monday's Gazette criticized the University for coming up with these programs in a somewhat ad hoc fashion. The URO's Williams disagrees. "These programs have been debated endlessly in faculty councils, in the Academic Planning and Policies Committee and in Senate. The people who sit on those committees certainly don't see themselves as rubber stamping anything."

Tavenas says it will be up to individual faculties to decide if they want to establish these sorts of programs.

"Given our global circumstances, if a faculty comes up with an interesting approach, we should be willing to listen to it." Pointing out that both Queen's and Concordia already offer high-tuition MBA programs to executives and others willing to pay, Tavenas says, "We claim to operate at the same level of quality. Why shouldn't we be willing to compete in these areas?"

The Vice-Principal says that the Quebec government "has been very supportive of this in general. If we ever tried to offer a BA on a private basis, they would certainly be up in arms. If the population for these programs is specialized and capable of paying the price we're setting and if we are not using government funds for these programs, where is the problem?"

Tavenas says that the initial La Presse story with its headline about privatizing the Faculty of Medicine sent shock waves through Quebec City. "I had the deputy minister of education on the phone telling me that the provincial cabinet was on his back. They wanted to know what was going on."

When asked if other faculties apart from Management can successfully offer these sorts of programs, Tavenas replied that the Faculty of Medicine is establishing a program with other Canadian medical schools and the government of Malaysia, whereby Malaysian medical students will pay higher tuition fees to receive part of their training in Canada. "I can't see a program like this in philosophy, maybe, but I think there are plenty of possibilities."

Director of admissions Mariela Johansen says that the reaction of students last week points to real concerns about tuition fee levels. "Even before this happened, we've been getting calls from students asking, 'If I start a degree at McGill, will I be able to finish it? Will it become much more expensive?'"

Williams acknowledges that the University has to make its case about tuition fees more effectively with students. "I think we need to be more persuasive. I think we have to explain to our undergraduate and graduate students what we're hoping to accomplish for them. We believe tuition fees should go up and we believe in protecting accessibility as well."