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

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.