Quebec universities: the McGill problem (hint: it’s not a problem)

Paul Wells explains why Quebec’s summit on universities is almost certain to be a gong show

by Paul Wells

Quebec higher-education minister Pierre Duchesne will spend Monday and Tuesday presiding over a summit on Quebec universities. Duchesne, a former senior correspondent for Radio-Canada, is one of the nicest guys I met in journalism; his three-volume (!) biography of Jacques Parizeau is definitive. It’s worth putting that on the record because next week’s summit looks like a five-alarm gong show, it couldn’t happen to a nicer government, and I sometimes have trouble holding back the snark.

The Gazette‘s Karen Seidman has a good overview of the issues and the way the Marois government has managed to position this summit as one whose outcome will please nobody. But I’m struck by a recurring theme in French-language commentary, which is the feats of ingenuity being expended to justify giving McGill University less public money.

This article offers one such example: Duchesne has mooted the possibility of giving supplementary financing to universities which attract more students whose parents never finished (attended? Attended past a certain threshold? Thought about?) higher education. Now, I like first-generation university students as much as anyone. It’s smart to encourage students to consider becoming the first in their family to attend university, if only because that would countervail some of the economic and social pressure not to bother and make it a fair choice. Bursary programs can do that. But it’s a goofy basis for funding universities, which would simply be burdened with tracking one more data point about every student, auditing their claims against hard-to-verify reality, and which — and this is kind of the point — face equal cost of educating two students who sit in the same lecture, whether they’re first- or fifth-generation students.

The whole idea is perfectly nonsensical — until we read that McGill has few first-generation students. Ahhh. McGill is English and rich, so it is evil, so any statistic pertaining to McGill becomes a plan for a new program to fund universities which… what’s the best way to put this? … aren’t McGill.

That’s the logic that leads Duchesne to ask in this interview what “the Quebec nation has to gain” from a university (the reporter helpfully adds that he’s “alluding to McGill”) where “students come from abroad, pay tuition like in their home country, and get a good deal.” You’re right. It’s repugnant.

This piece by a bunch of academics gets more quickly to the point: The problem isn’t that clever ways could perhaps be found to give non-McGill universities more money, the problem is that McGill-ish universities get too much. And by McGill-ish, I mean English: only 8.3% of Quebec’s population is anglophone, but 29% of Quebec university funding goes to English-language institutions. So that’s bad. The fact that two of Quebec’s five largest-enrolment universities are the English-language McGill and Concordia is — well, it’s self-incriminating, isn’t it? If so many people go to those universities, it can only be because they’re coddled. Ruin them, and their enrolment will decline. QED!

This group op-ed follows on the heels of a column by Le Devoir‘s Michel David that made similar arguments. Michel’s headline was “The Taboo,” which I take to be satirical: The word “taboo” refers to an argument that must never be made, not one that gets made three times in one week by a leading columnist, a pack of PhDs, and the higher-ed minister of Canada’s second-largest province.

Since the PQ government was elected by siding with last year’s tuition protests, it is locked into a logic which argues that the problem with Quebec’s universities is that they are too rich. It will now reap what it sowed. As for McGill, its principal Heather Munroe-Blum could wipe a lot of smirks off a lot of faces by handing in her resignation on Monday morning and then waiting for the reporter from the New York Times to call, but she is too conscientious to  pull such a stunt. So in the global competition for talented minds, McGill will continue to fight with one hand tied behind its back. I forget who it was who pointed out recently that any serious nationalism puts human capital ahead of everything else. It wasn’t Pierre Duchesne.

 




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Quebec universities: the McGill problem (hint: it’s not a problem)

  1. I have a remarkably controversial idea.

    So if the Pequistes really, really don’t want to fund McGill, why don’t they… let McGill charge higher tuition rates!

    Shocking thought, that.

    • That ship has already sailed, it was called the Charest, and it sunk.

  2. You could be mischievous and ask Mulcair about it.

  3. I am anglo raised in southern ontario, so this is easy for me to say, but Quebec need new philosophy, should be much less anti-english in everything they do. In many ways, anglos and/or english language have become Franco’s bogeyman and that’s not good.

    I taught English in Korea in 1997/98 – before internet, email, social media – and all ambitious educated people needed to learn english. World trade is done in english, so Koreans focused on learning english. Koreans wanted to be able to pick up phone and talk to any one in world in english and sound like a native english speaker. More fluent in english you were, the higher you went with your employer. Koreans were not worried about losing identity, many kids said they were not worried about losing their identity as long as their dreams were in korean.

    Instead of punishing success, Francophones should copy what Anglos doing correctly and adapt to their benefit. Much of Quebec public policy seems to be cut off nose to spite face – bureaucrats should study what works and replicate elsewhere, but Quebec does opposite. The State dreams up cockamamie ways to fund universities that punish successful on purpose.

    • You forget that Francophones are “special”. The experiences of other cultures doesn’t apply to them for that reason. Don’t ask why they’re “special”, just know that they’re different than every other group of people on the planet.

    • I feel sorry for the Koreans to whom you were teaching English, given your weak grasp of the subtleties of verb-subject accord and other grammatical details.

  4. Another good article Wells.

    It’s truly depressing reading though. Mcgill is a true bright spot in Quebec, it’s a jewel. Any country in the world would relish such a quality institution with such an admirable history. The Quebec government wants to strangle it because… it’s English. As you’ve said, they want to weaken Mcgill because it’s successful, because people really want to go there, and it also happens to be English. If Mcgill becomes just another second-rate school that attracts no talent from outside Quebec then they’ll be happy.

    Because people like it so much they want to weaken it. It’s somewhat of a microcosm of Quebec today: whatever is English and successful must be weakened.

    • Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face. Better no nose than an Anglo nose, I guess.

  5. It’s also maddening that a supposedly intelligent person would say: “Si vos étudiants arrivent de l’étranger, paient des droits de scolarité
    comme dans leur pays, font une bonne affaire… si à 90 % ils retournent
    chez eux, la nation québécoise y gagne quoi ?”

    People from other countries coming to Quebec, living in Quebec, and spending their money in Quebec (paying full-priced tuition much higher than Quebecers tuition), paying professors good money to create higher education jobs and research in Quebec, bringing their talents and ideas to Quebec for several years, and who knows, some of them may end up making contributions in other ways to Quebec. Many may go go home and maintain business and research ties to Quebec, tell their compatriots about Quebec, and promote Quebec.

    But he says, “what does the Quebecois nation have to gain”?

    Truly pathetic.

    Other countries dream about creating high-tech and innovative corridors like Silicon Valley, Harvard/MIT/Cambridge, the LSE in the UK, Oxford/Cambridge, etc. In Quebec, the government actively tries to subvert such repugnant things.

  6. McGill should begin turning away Quebec students who were not educated primarily in English and whose patronym or matronym is French. All those Pierre-André Blondine-Blondin. They should all be given a one-way Metro ticket to the Berri-UQUAM intersection. It’ll take a year before the elites figure out where to put their kids and on what side their bread is buttered.

    • Why should McGill get into the French/English game? Its success is based on taking the best students regardless of language. I obtained my undergraduate and graduate degrees at McGill. My wife who is French Canadian chose McGill for her graduate degree, despite the fact that she barely spoke English at the time, though she was used to biology English texts (from her undergraduate at U of Montreal). I must admit, I am rather grateful to McGill. I tried to get into U of Montreal, but couldn’t pass the entrance French exam for one of their professional programs, though my French language skills were passable for conversation at the time.

      • I believe the point made in this report is that McGill is being vilified by the Language Nationalists (as it was in the 1960s, of course, when mass demonstrations were launched to “turn McGill French.”)
        McGill could do worse than remind the population that, if language and ethnicity are such an issue, McGill is no longer interested in undertaking education for French Canadians. This will scare the bejasus out of the nationalist elite who hug the shores of, say, Laval-sur-le-Lac, and who value both English skills and Anglophone education.

        • I guess I don’t see how McGill living up to the vilification and justifying it’s existence as a training environment for Anglos is going to scare anyone. I suspect, rather, that it will bolster support for closed-minded nationalists.

          • Exactly. McGill already has to walk an extremely narrow tightrope, and basically just tries to hide its head from the powers that be in the province so as not to remind them that it’s there to cut funding from.

  7. For what it’s worth, the PQs retroactive cuts aren’t earning them any standing ovations at the French universities. And that won’t change whatever the outcome of the coming summit.

  8. Maybe McGill students can take down the French Fascist Regime. They’re smart enough.

  9. “What does does Quebec gain from McGill?” What a ridiculous question. It gains ambassadors to the world, that’s what it gains, who will tell their peers about what a wonderful place Montreal is.
    Or at least they would, if they were allowed to.

    • “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

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