December 5, 1996

Marois unapologetic over differential fee hike

Education Minister Pauline Marois

On November 18, Quebec education minister Pauline Marois announced a new fee structure for Quebec university students. While the minister pledged to maintain the tuition freeze for Quebec students, out-of-province students will see their fees rise to the national average and international students will be expected to absorb an even higher increase.

The minister's announcement did not include any information on the operating grants for Quebec universities, and some details of the fee announcement are still confusing. Last week, the minister agreed to a short interview with the Reporter.

The government is preparing to cut between $100 and $150 million from the university network. McGill's share of that would come to between $14 and $22 million. Can you tell us any more about funding for the universities?

The extent of the budget cuts required has not been established. The government is working on various hypotheses. The overall effort we are asking the education sector to make is between $600 and $700 million, but no definitive decisions have been made. As you have seen, we are discussing this with our unions, at least we hope there will be discussions. And that could obviously have some effect on the scope of the effort we are asking for.

If the rumoured amount is accurate, that would be equal to or higher than the budget for the McGill Faculty of Engineering. What strategies would you recommend that universities adopt in the face of such cuts?

I am well aware that we are asking all sectors of society to make a considerable effort. This is not specific to the education sector. On the contrary, we are trying to protect this function that is so vital to our society as much as possible. The strategies will centre on rationalization.

Of course, we cannot cut services. I believe that would be wrong. But budget reductions will doubtless lead the universities to take another look at some of their collaboration strategies, for example, rationalizing certain courses with other universities. Some courses may perhaps be made accessible or available in collaboration with universities all over Quebec. And that would save a certain amount. But I am aware that what we are asking is major and substantial.

Are there some examples of rationalization that you feel would be instructive?

CREPUQ suggested that we set up a committee to rationalize certain programs. I wrote them to confirm that I agreed with their approach, that I was waiting for them to develop their own mandate and set up a committee or group to work on this. And I identified some faculties, such as mining engineering, for example. We know that there are quite a few faculties of theology all over Quebec--10 or 11. Is there not some way to rationalize? At McGill, speaking of music, for example, we know that there are several faculties of music in Quebec.

Is there not some way to agree that in order to maintain a high level of quality, some activities should be concentrated at one university or another? Or that we should make networked programs available? Because we know that, generally, the student population is quite mobile. This is the type of thing I have in mind.

Of course, these things happen in the medium or long term. I know it's not desirable to have deficits, but a temporary deficit might be acceptable if we can catch up in a year, two years, three years. On the other hand, as you know I presented a bill in the National Assembly that is now at the approval stage regarding the setting up of university foundations.* I know that McGill, among other universities, is very interested in these foundations. I received a letter about this from Mr. Shapiro. There are considerable amounts that could be tapped for these foundations which would help the universities.

Many people at McGill are very concerned about differential fees. In your opinion, is it discriminatory or unfair for a French student from France, for instance, to pay less than a student from Manitoba?

It is also true that a student may come from other countries in Africa or Europe, because you know we have agreements with about 50 countries, I believe. I don't think that this is discriminatory. We make choices as a government. We try to make those choices as fairly as possible.

I am prepared to offer reciprocity to the other provinces. I have no problem with that. Here's how it would work: the other provinces would agree to let our students pay the same tuition they would pay here when they attend university in Toronto, Vancouver or Victoria, and we would receive students here who would pay the same tuition they would pay at their respective universities. I have no problem with that.

Do you think that differential fees make it more difficult for English-language universities in Quebec?

I looked at what this means, and in 1994-95, there were just as many foreign students at Laval and Université de Montréal as there were at McGill. It's split right down the middle. So it would affect francophone universities as much as it would affect McGill University, for example.

Obviously, there is a slightly larger proportion, I agree, because of Concordia and Bishop's. But the fact remains that in any event, the differences are not significant for foreign students. For Canadian students, the difference is more significant, because obviously there are more students at McGill from the rest of Canada than there are at Laval or Université de Montréal.

Université de Montréal professor Michel Moisan argued recently that Quebec spends too much money proportionately on English-language education for non-Quebec students. Is there any value for Quebec to have students come here from elsewhere?

Oh yes. I believe that, on the contrary, if we can have other types of policies that will attract foreign students, that should be a priority, because it's an extraordinary source of wealth for Quebec. And that is true for Canadian students too. I'm convinced of that.

First of all, it makes Quebec better known elsewhere on the planet, and in the rest of Canada. And it also makes a cultural contribution, bringing us knowledge from people who come from all over the world. And in that sense, I still want that.

But you know, even with differential fees, considering the cost of living in Montreal and Quebec City, and even more elsewhere, there is still a great comparative advantage. Renting an apartment in Montreal, and renting an apartment in Toronto, there's a big difference. This holds true for nearly all the provinces, except I think perhaps the Atlantic provinces, but in certain cases they have fees that are much higher than ours.

Would differential fees apply only to new students, or to students currently enrolled in programs in Quebec?

It would apply to all students enrolled in programs in Quebec starting in the fall.

McGill has begun to set up programs in dentistry and management where students pay the full cost, without any government subsidies. From your perspective, is this a good idea?

This is really an approach that other provinces have made a priority. I am not currently ready to commit to this in any formal way, but I am ready to look at what this could mean. I'm not ready to make any formal commitment in support of this type of approach at the moment.

Would you like to talk a little about the program for compulsory retirement at age 65?

Yes, I announced that at the same time as the rest last month. My main concern is that people be treated fairly. I would say that I would want any action taken to be fair. I think we need to be aware of the problems these people are experiencing.

So in the case of professors who reach the age of 65, I believe that we could regulate this, but we are working on that here at the ministry. What we would do is let the university terminate the professor's employment when he or she reaches the age of 65, but on one condition--that the professor is not penalized from the actuarial standpoint in his or her pension plan.

Obviously, a pension plan includes a certain number of conditions the person must meet to receive a full pension. Obviously, if someone continues to contribute, that may increase the pension, but the fact remains that pensions include criteria stipulating that at such-and-such an age, with so many years of service, you can retire with a full pension.

What I would like to preserve would be to avoid penalizing people whose pensions would be reduced if they had to retire at 65, when a few years more would enable them to meet the standards for the pension plan. So that would be the only restriction. For the rest, it would be up to the universities to decide (when professors reach the age of 65) whether they keep the person on or not, because they could also decide to keep the person on contract or in some other way. It would be their initiative.

Do you believe that students enrolled in disciplines with greater long-term earning power, such as medicine, should pay higher fees than, say, arts students?

What we're going to do with the differential fees, for sure we'll ask medical students to pay a bit more. There would be different groups--there are already--but I think it's normal for things to be that way. It's already that way even with the current fees. There's a small difference because it takes longer to get your degree. It costs more up front, but at the same time these people will also be earning higher incomes later on.

Interview by Eric Smith
Translation by Kathe Lieber

* Such a law would permit Quebec's universities to establish Crown foundations for fundraising purposes. A donor making a significant gift to a university would be able to shield up to 100% of annual income from taxation. (See full story, in the Reporter of October 24)