October 24, 1996

Estates General report earns cool response

Eric Smith

The Estates General on Education has made its recommendations to the Quebec government. Its report suggests changes at all levels of education in the province, from pre-school to university. Quebec Minister of Education Pauline Marois is expected to issue her official response to the Estates General's proposals shortly--perhaps as soon as today.

The report focuses on "access to success," according to Estates General co-president Robert Bisaillon. "In the last 30 years, we've made great progress," he said. But the report identifies some barriers to opportunity at every level of the provincial education system.

Universities are not spared criticism in the report's findings, and throughout the process there has been a level of mistrust between the Estates General and Quebec post-secondary institutions.

According to Bisaillon, "Universities didn't see much importance or credibility in what we were doing." He added that they became more active participants in the process only when it was established that the Estates General would be making policy recommendations to the government.

Universities have been critical of the Estates General. Only four pages of the final report address university education in Quebec. "The report is completely silent on the value and importance of graduate programs," said McGill principal Bernard Shapiro. "It is based on a general philosophical notion that looks at the lowest common denominator instead of the highest possible factor."

Although Shapiro agreed, "It is probably true that the single most important thing is to raise the level of education for the mass population," he added: "It is not sufficient if we don't also work at the top level."

The report recommends maintaining the freeze on tuition fees, allowing them to increase only "as a last resort." According to Shapiro, "I think we are at the last resort. All (the freeze) means is fewer classes, fewer professors, fewer books, fewer everything. This is how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory."

Bisaillon suggests universities could make up for funding difficulties by increasing their reliance on private sector funding. "Once you get past mandatory education you need to turn more to private funding," he said. "University research should be billed to those who use it. Right now approximately two-thirds of research funding comes from public money."

Bisaillon added that universities need to take steps to rationalize programs. "We heard a refusal from universities to specialize. All universities can't do everything. It's expensive."

According to Shapiro, "They talk about rationalization as if they had invented it. Quebec universities have been doing it for years. We have been doing it and we intend to continue to do it."

A central focus of the report's criticisms of the university system in Quebec is the reliance on "chargés de cours," part-time instructors who teach undergraduate-level classes in many of the province's universities. Although this question is a matter of significant concern in the report, it is not a problem here at McGill where almost all undergraduate classes are taught by University faculty.

Perhaps anticipating the tepid reaction its report would receive in the university community, the Estates General recognizes its own limits in grappling with the current situation in post-secondary education. Among its recommendations, it suggests putting together a provincial commission to look specifically at higher education. "If this commission doesn't have the expertise to address university-level education, let's create another one," said Bisaillon.

According to Shapiro, "That's an awful idea. It would take another year or two of hearings before we get anything done." Instead, he encourages the government to take a closer look at recommendations from the Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec (CREPUQ) on how best to apply government resources and regulatory frameworks in the Quebec university network.

It is not yet clear what impact the report from the Estates General will have on education policy in Quebec. Many of its recommendations have met with resistance from different sectors of Quebec society and editorial reaction has been lukewarm. Its proposals for secularization of the school system, for example, are both constitutionally problematic and politically unpopular.

But on some questions there is consensus. All participants agreed that the Quebec education system has made tremendous strides in the last 30 years, and that in spite of persistent problems, it has a legacy of success to build on.