Allison Hanes: Tuition hike will harm more than Quebec's English universities

Doubling tuition for fellow Canadians is a fresh us-versus-them wedge aimed at the ties that bind this country together.

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The bombshell the government of Premier François Legault dropped on Quebec’s three English universities last week by doubling tuition for students from out of province will no doubt be catastrophic for their enrolment.

But the punitive policy announced as part of a new “offensive” to reinforce the French language will damage much more than recruitment at the three schools.

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McGill, Concordia and Bishop’s University have long drawn a significant portion of their student bodies from the rest of Canada, part of a rich tradition of educational exchange, co-operation and opportunity that has fostered academic excellence. It’s an arrangement that also works both ways.

At a time in their lives when young adults are looking to spread their wings and expand their horizons, some students not only seek to leave home for their undergraduate or master’s degrees, but to move elsewhere in the country. Many from outside Quebec are drawn to vibrant, exciting, dynamic Montreal, one of the best cities in the world to be a student. And some Quebecers go in the opposite direction.

What’s so wrong with that? Section 6 of the Canadian Constitution governing “mobility rights” makes this possible — desirable, even — promising that every citizen and permanent resident has the “right to move and take up residency in any province and to pursue the gaining of a livelihood in any province.”

That’s why there’s no border checkpoint where Highway 20 turns into the 401, Quebecers who get hurt skiing at Whistler are entitled to care at B.C. hospitals and Montrealers can get jobs in Toronto without needing a work permit.

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It’s all part of being Canadian. And Canada, despite many regional cleavages, was still a country last time I checked. Oh yeah, and Quebec is also still part of Canada.

But the Legault government, desperately seeking to bolster its hardline cred after a byelection defeat to the Parti Québécois, is now taking aim at this freedom of movement, sense of adventure and sentiment of belonging to the wider country.

It’s portraying all these non-Quebec anglophones moving to Montreal (or Lennoxville) as freeloading interlopers responsible for the decline of French. Hey, they’re probably the ones making the ears of French Language Minister Jean-François Roberge bleed by greeting customers with “Bonjour/Hi!” at downtown Starbucks cafés. The nerve.

Higher Education Minister Pascale Déry complained that many of the students who come to Quebec to study leave and so the province is making “a choice” not to subsidize their education anymore. Out-of-province students are still welcome, she insisted — as long as they pony up $17,000 instead of $9,000 to reflect the true cost of their degrees. That way, the fresh proceeds can be funnelled back to underfunded francophone universities.

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Props to Déry for making the announcement sound like a perfectly rational economic decision. Emphasizing that 80 per cent of francophones go to university in Quebec to justify turning the screws on these supposed outsiders will surely fool many francophones into thinking this makes sense.

But it’s just populist pandering designed to stir up resentment. It ignores the fact Quebec also has the lowest tuition in the country for its own residents, be they francophone or anglophone. So there is a financial incentive to stay home that doesn’t exist for students in the ROC.

The $9,000 tuition that Quebec universities currently charge out-of-province students is roughly in line with what they would pay anywhere else in the country. So even if differential rates were controversial when introduced 25 years ago, they didn’t have the same prohibitive effect as nearly doubling tuition will have now.

Besides, if Déry was serious about retaining these students in the midst of a labour shortage, she’d be working with anglophone universities on francization plans to get these locally educated graduates to stay permanently. McGill had been on the verge of unveiling just such a strategy when the Quebec government pulled the rug out from under the English universities.

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Instead, this myopic and discriminatory tuition scheme will perpetuate a new brain drain and hobble English universities, which are being unjustly singled out. It’s not only counterproductive, it’s probably unconstitutional (not that this government gives a fig about the Constitution).

This is a continuation of Legault’s long game to weaken the English community’s institutions, turn anglophone Quebecers into second-class citizens and curtail the rights of minorities more broadly.

It’s also another example of Legault’s highly successful effort to distance Quebec from the rest of Canada. He is a master at nursing grievances to convince people Quebecers are under “attack” when facing the slightest criticism, be it from the federal government, fellow Canadians or specific individuals.

If there was one group in this country that might have a deeper understanding of Quebec’s history, distinctness and sensitivities, it’s all the Canadian students who have been educated at universities here. They help break down the Two Solitudes that persist between Quebecers and Canadians, as well as anglophones and francophones.

Driving them away is the next step in Legault’s incremental march toward greater independence for Quebec. By erecting artificial financial barriers, he’s undermining reciprocity. The less exposure Quebecers have to other Canadians (and vice versa), the less affinity, understanding and attachment will exist — and the more Legault’s polarizing and divisive identity politics are sure to resonate.

Raising tuition for fellow Canadians at English universities is a new us-versus-them wedge aimed at the ties that bind this country together.

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