November 21, 1996
by Eric Smith
The Education Minister's announcement Monday that tuition fees would be frozen for Quebec residents and increased to the national average for out-of-province students has met with disappointment and anger from many in the McGill community.
Although the announcement by Pauline Marois this week has had the effect of quelling some of the militancy on the part of protesting CEGEP students, it has had the opposite effect on students at McGill. They voted overwhelmingly at a general assembly Monday in favour of a one-day strike, which took place yesterday.
For its part, the McGill administration is disappointed the government did not opt for an across-the-board tuition increase and a parallel increase in University revenue. According to Vice-Principal (Academic) Bill Chan, "We as a university oppose differential fees between Quebec and Canadian students. We would like to see greater mobility. Students from other provinces contribute significantly to the intellectual life of the University and to the economic life of the city and province."
Added Chan, "It is true that English-speaking universities have a greater number of out-of-province students. We would like to see the other universities have as many."
The extra revenue McGill would generate by virtue of its relatively large out-of-province student population would likely not go to the University.
Although the University did not endorse Wednesday's strike and classes were not cancelled, Chan's office released a statement of sympathy with the "cause espoused by students as expressed in the vote of the Students' Society of McGill University."
According to SSMU president Chris Carter, the planned cuts to education are of more significant concern than the single issue of the tuition freeze. "They gave in to that one demand for a tuition freeze. But they haven't talked about the cuts," he said. "We can have the tuition freeze all we want. But for McGill and everyone else, we want to have great libraries, we want to have great professors. We want to have the best programs, we want to have great research. We're not going to be getting any of that if we don't have any support."
McGill estimates between $15 million and $20 million to be its share of the $600-$700 million cut to education anticipated in the next provincial budget. This cut comes on the heels of annual cuts over the last five years which amount to a cumulative shortfall of $86 million to date.
Vice-Principal (Planning and Resources) François Tavenas says the issue of differential fees is marginal compared to the cuts the University will have to absorb. "That $15 million to 20 million represents more than the budget of the entire library system or the whole operating budget of the Faculty of Engineering," he said
But according to Carter the issue of differential fees for out-of-province students is largely responsible for galvanizing the McGill student body. Close to a quarter of the student body comes from other Canadian provinces. Arguing in favour of the motion to strike at the SSMU general assembly, student Kirsten McKeown said, "I found out today that I can no longer afford to come here because of differential fees."
Most out-of-province students picketing outside the University Wednesday said they anticipated returning to McGill next year in spite of the increased tuition. But some expressed the fear that McGill would be a less attractive option for new students from the rest of Canada. And others were concerned about the political implications of the differential fee structure. D'Arcy Doran, a third-year Arts student from Mississauga will be returning to McGill next year, but said the new fee structure "is a message from the Quebec government that treats me as a foreign student in my own country."
Tavenas does not believe higher fees will deter out-of-province students from considering an academic career at McGill. "A student from Vancouver comes first for the quality. In the decision of whether it is affordable, the cost of tuition is only one small aspect -- $1,300 is not going to change the face of the world." Tavenas said he is more concerned "about the impression this creates outside Quebec. We need to hear that the contributions of students from outside Quebec are valued."
Christiane Miville-Deschênes, a spokesperson for Marois, said the differential fee structure was not aimed at discouraging Canadian students from studying in Quebec. "The reason people from elsewhere choose to study in Quebec is the quality of education they find here," she said. "The cost is no greater than what they would pay in Ontario."
According to the ministry, Quebec subsidizes out-of-province students more than its own students are subsidized elsewhere in Canada. Annually, 10,000 out-of-province students come to study in Quebec versus 6,000 Quebecers who choose to pursue their degrees elsewhere in Canada.
Miville-Deschênes added that the ministry values the contribution of out-of-province students to the Quebec education system. "We have only to look at the very different character of Montreal. What other cultures bring is very important to the richness of the environment."
Although the minister's announcement came as student protests were gathering momentum across the province and just prior to a party convention at which Marois was expecting tough questions from the youth wing, Miville-Deschênes stated that the decision to maintain the freeze for Quebec students "was not made to satisfy student associations, but is consistent with the recommendations of experts." She added, "The minister has always said that a tuition increase was a measure of last resort."
According to Carter, the minister's move is a direct response to the pressure from striking CEGEP students. "I think this is a very divisive and hurtful move on the part of the Parti Québécois. Their intention was to try and take the wind away from the Quebec student movement. Their intention was to divide. They're obviously not concerned about post-secondary education or else they wouldn't be making these sorts of shortsighted cuts and shortsighted tuition reforms."
There is some good news in the Marois announcement for universities coping with budget cuts. The minister committed herself to working with the Labour Ministry on implementing a recommendation from the Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec (CREPUQ) to allow universities to ask staff 65 and over to retire. According to Vice-Principal (Administration and Finance) Phyllis Heaphy, "This would be a big help to McGill and other universities, by enabling them to make budget cuts they might not otherwise be able to make, and also to provide for some renewal of the professoriate by hiring young people to replace the people retiring."