Poor McGill

Linking rising tuition fees to its president's salary cheapens the debate

McGill University, as you may have heard, has been the site of various student protests as of late. There are several reasons why Montreal’s ivy-heavy institute of higher learning is a particularly ripe target for these things:

1) Its president, Heather Munroe-Blum, is probably the loudest president/rector in the province in arguing for tuition fee increases;

2) McGill is currently home to a nasty and protracted strike of much of its support staff;

3) Its campus is literally across the street from Jean Charest’s Montreal office;

4) It’s an historically English institution. Cue menacing music.

I don’t have much to say about two, three or four, except to say that they are aggravating factors in number one. Certainly, Monroe-Blum hasn’t done herself any favours in the PR department: with an annual combined salary of $585,481 (with a whopping $229,307 in perks and other compensation) she is, by far, the highest paid university president in Quebec. PR-wise, she would go a long way in the labour dispute if she publicly called on the university board to freeze her salary and do away with the most decadent perks. ($16K yearly car allowance? What, you can’t buy your own damn Honda Civic?) The changes of that happening, of course, are about as likely as Monroe-Blum actually owning a Honda Civic.

But to link rising tuition fees to Munroe-Blum’s salary—which protesters did last week when they occupied her office—cheapens the debate.

Yes, Munroe-Blum makes a lot of money, and there is a debate to be had about that. But you want to talk perks? How’s this: an undergraduate degree for $6,503.40. That’s what it costs for a Quebec resident to attend McGill or any other university in the province. That’s less than half the Canadian average. Granted, that doesn’t include student fees (about $1,300 a year for arts majors), but still: you can get a university education for about half of what Monroe-Blum didn’t spend on that Honda Civic. It’s the deal of the century. And it’s completely unsustainable.

Here’s a fact that jumped out at me from Yves Boisvert’s recent column on the subject. “With inflation,” Boisvert writes, “[Quebec’s] $2200 tuition fee is less than the $500 students paid in 1968.” Why, exactly, such artificially low tuition fees have stubbornly remained in Quebec is a long story. The short version: along with cheap electricity, they are one of our sacred cows. Unlike cheap electricity, though, low tuition is starving the very thing that supplies the resource. Quebec universities have an average accumulated operating deficit of nearly $150 million (see page seven of this report.)

Kind of makes bitching about the government’s planned increase of $1600 seem petty, no? Especially considering how low tuitions amount to subsidies for better-off students, already well-represented on campuses, who could surely afford to paid a lot more.

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