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Out-of-province students aren't 'freeloaders or cash cows': French university heads

They denounce "any measure that would put the very existence of a university at risk."

Université de Montréal's campus is seen in a file photo.
Université de Montréal's campus is seen in a file photo. Photo by Ryan Remiorz /THE CANADIAN PRESS

The heads of five French-language universities are jumping to the defence of anglophone counterparts whose institutions are under threat because of Quebec’s new tuition structure.

In an open letter published Wednesday, they said Quebec’s tuition plan will do little to help francophone universities while endangering anglophone ones and sending a harmful message to students from elsewhere.

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“The new measures do not add funding to the envelope allocated to the Quebec university network,” the five university leaders wrote in an open letter published Wednesday by La Presse. “They only redistribute current resources, with perhaps marginal benefits.”

The letter was signed by the heads of five major Quebec institutions: the Université de Montréal, Université Laval, Université de Sherbrooke, Polytechnique Montréal, an engineering school, and HEC Montréal, a business school.

The tuition restructuring, to take effect in fall 2024, will see tuition almost double to $17,000 for students from other provinces, a move that will largely affect anglophone universities.

Under the plan, the government will also withhold more of the money that international students pay.

All three anglophone universities — Bishop’s, Concordia and McGill — have criticized the plan, saying their finances will be devastated because the massive tuition hike will scare off students from other provinces. They are also expected to lose much of the money they now get from foreign students.

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Bishop’s, the smallest of the institutions, says it might not survive losing the 30 per cent of its student body that comes from other provinces.

In the letter, the francophone university chiefs said: “Any measure that would endanger the very existence of a university, or weaken it to the point of distorting it, must be excluded from the discussion.”

The influx of English-speaking students is one of “the reasons for the decline of the French language in Quebec,” French Language Minister Jean-François Roberge said at the time. “That’s not surprising when tens of thousands of people arrive on the island of Montreal without mastering French. It’s obvious that this can have an anglicizing effect on the metropolis.”

Higher Education Minister Pascale Déry noted most students from the rest of Canada leave after graduating. She complained the Quebec government is subsidizing their education to the tune of about $110 million per year.

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In their letter, the university heads write: “Certain unfortunate comments coloured the announcement of these measures. Students from outside Quebec were presented in turn as budgetary variables, threats to the growth of French, freeloaders or cash cows.

“Rather, we must see them as actors who contribute, like Quebec students, to the excellence, quality, diversity and relevance of our establishments.

“Universities around the world recognize the exceptional contributions of people from outside their borders. We must attract these talents to our country, contribute to their francization, integrate them and retain them in Quebec and, failing that, expose them sufficiently to our culture so that they can promote our distinct society throughout the world.

“Our universities want to continue to play this role and can only achieve this by presenting themselves as open and welcoming spaces.”

The university heads argue all Quebec universities need more resources.

“All universities in Quebec are public universities which have the mandate to contribute to the development of Quebec by promoting access to higher education, knowledge and expertise for as many people as possible,” they write.

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“We all have the desire to advance knowledge, and to mobilize our best ideas to respond to major contemporary issues, with the best researchers from around the world. In this sense, all our universities are world-class universities. No one wants to register only on the local scene.”

Quebec students benefit from the lowest tuition in Canada.

In their letter, the university heads say Quebec universities are suffering because of the “very low level” of tuition for local students.

“Compared to universities in the rest of Canada, the shortfall today amounts to more than $1 billion per year, which the Quebec government has not yet managed to make up.”

The letter was signed by Daniel Jutras (Université de Montréal), Sophie D’Amours (Université Laval), Pierre Cossette (Université de Sherbrooke), Maud Cohen (Polytechnique Montréal) and Federico Pasin (HEC Montréal).

Their message was in contrast to the one from colleagues at some other French-language post-secondary institutions.

In their own open letter on Monday, the heads of 10 institutions in the Université du Québec network backed the government.

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“A rebalancing of income between all universities is necessary in order to meet the glaring workforce needs and give French-language universities the means to contribute even more to the social, scientific, cultural and economic development of Quebec,” they wrote.

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