Shapiro talks tough

DIANA GRIER AYTON | Principal Bernard Shapiro spoke at a lunch at the Canadian Club on Monday, and if he didn't quite bite the hand that fed him, he certainly snapped at it.

"I am angry and I want an opportunity to say so," he began, giving vent to the frustration felt by all Quebec universities trying to sustain quality despite "the draconian reduction of our provincial operating grants and the apparent apathy of the public."

One cause of his anger, he told the audience -- mostly business-people and lawyers -- is that "you, the community most likely to benefit from a strong, healthy university system, remain strangely, unaccountably silent."

Outlining the situation at McGill -- cuts of $48 million since 1992, a further cut of 11% expected next year, a relative underfunding due to a higher percentage of students in "expensive" programs like medicine, dentistry and engineering -- he urged his listeners to share his anger.

He pointed to the report from a McGill economist released this week showing that, by itself, McGill attracted $616 million to the province in 1995 in donations, research funding, student spending, etc. "Even in the short term, investing in the quality of higher education is just about the best investment that our taxpayers could possibly make."

As for the longer term, he warned that further cuts to universities "will guarantee not only an inadequate education for our children and grandchildren but -- given the knowledge-rich environments of our future -- a general slide for all Quebec society into mediocrity."

According to a year-end poll in Maclean's, Shapiro said, Canadians identified lack of a job as their top concern, with education placing sixth. "Doesn't anyone make the connection?" he asked.

Another failed connection occurred when Quebec student groups successfully lobbied the government in 1996 to maintain existing tuition levels. (Tuition was increased, but only for out-of-province students.)

"They believe they have triumphed because in their understandable view, access to university continues to remain unobstructed by higher tuition fees. This is true in a limited way: there is access, but to what? Fewer teachers? Fewer books? Fewer laboratories? Fewer courses? Larger classes?"

While sympathetic to student concerns, Shapiro said he is "not embarrassed" to argue for reasonable increases in tuition because universities need more revenue. Without it, he says, McGill will be forced to reduce spending per student to less than $10,000.

(By comparison, the University of Alberta has asked its board to approve a tuition increase because per-student spending there has fallen to $12,335. The U of A administration fears the school is falling too far behind institutions like the University of Toronto, with $14,465 per student, and UBC at $15,415.)

Shapiro insists Quebec's universities have run out of options. "We have...made all the sacrifices possible. We have reduced our staff numbers, we have postponed serious maintenance problems, we have joined forces in academic programs and in operations like purchasing, we have closed departments, we have eliminated pay increases, we have not replaced retiring professors, we have set up the Commission des programmes to look at a whole series of academic activities. But to cut a further $80 million next year and who knows how much the year after  -- it's too much!

"...When I asked the Minister of Education, Pauline Marois, what can be done to make it easier for her to protect the interests and the future of Quebec universities, she told me that her colleagues in cabinet never hear on this matter from committed citizens such as those in this room."

Shapiro concluded by asking the group to familiarize themselves with the issues, to become "passionate advocates" for universities, and to get other citizens and the government to admit there's a problem.

"That's what we need to survive, so that together we can achieve social justice and prosperity for all our citizens."