To the editor:
On September 15, 1999, the Office of the Principal of McGill University released a document entitled Tradition and Innovation: an International University in a City of Knowledge. The document, prepared in response to a request by the Minister of Education of Quebec to provide information on academic priorities and university funding issues, includes the proposal (4.4) "that universities be allowed to set and keep differential (and higher) fees for highly restricted programs."
The rationale advanced for this proposal is that "given sophisticated programs of student financial aid, it is evident that in a certain number of restricted programs (e.g., Medicine, Dentistry, Law, MBA) where the number of applicants is very high relative to the number to be admitted and where the job market guarantees a certain income level, higher fees would not be a deterrent to accessibility." The report refers favourably to the University of Toronto, where students in "professional" programs have seen dramatic tuition hikes as a result of such a policy.
First-year students in Law at the University of Toronto are now paying $8,000 per year in tuition alone. By contrast, first-year students at McGill's Faculty of Law who are residents of Quebec pay $1668.30 in tuition fees.
The Council of the Law Students Association of McGill University adopted the following statement of principle:
"The Law Students Association of McGill University is fundamentally committed to the principle of accessibility to legal education. To this end, we are strongly opposed to the imposition of differential fees for the law programme.
"We believe that the strength of our faculty lies in the diversity of our student body. We recognize that Law students undertake their education at McGill to pursue ends as varied as their backgrounds, and many commence legal education with severe financial constraints.
"We believe that differential fees for professional programmes restrict students' choices, both of the University at which they undertake their studies, and in their endeavours thereafter.
"While we support Principal Shapiro's call on the Government of Quebec to increase funding to universities, we strongly oppose Proposal 4.4 in the report, Tradition and Innovation, that universities be allowed to set and keep differential (and higher) fees for highly restricted programs."
Students at McGill's Faculty of Law come from a wide variety of educational and socio-economic backgrounds. Some of them begin their legal education having already incurred heavy debt loads during their undergraduate and/or graduate studies. Students choose to study law for a multiplicity of reasons, and their paths do not all lead to lucrative or stable employment.
While there is no question that post-secondary institutions in Quebec are underfunded to the point of crisis, there is no solution to be found in shifting the burden onto specific groups of students. A student should not be penalised for choosing a particular path of study. At this crucial moment in Quebec's reassessment of its social priorities, this is not the message that McGill should be sending to the Quebec government on behalf of all members of the McGill community.