Editorial: In latest salvo, Quebec takes aim at anglo universities

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Montreal’s universities are among the city’s greatest assets.

Economically, academically, culturally and socially, these dynamic institutions of higher learning contribute immeasurably to Montreal’s vitality.

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Montreal consistently tops international rankings as the best city to be a student.

McGill University is a fixture on lists of the world’s most prestigious schools.

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Together, Montreal’s universities added $26.2 billion to the city’s gross domestic product in 2019-’20 and generated $4.3 billion in economic spinoffs, according to a study by the Chambre de commerce de Montréal métropolitain.

Most governments would see this as a point of pride — or at least have the good sense not to mess with success.

Not the government of Premier François Legault.

On Friday, Quebec announced it’s going to almost double tuition for out-of-province Canadians to $17,000 from $9,000 and raise it for international students — but only at Quebec’s three English universities: McGill, Concordia and Bishop’s in Lennoxville.

As Higher Education Minister Pascale Déry spun it, Quebec is done with “subsidizing” — to the tune of $110 million a year — students who come to study from other provinces when most leave once they graduate.

By raising their tuition to $17,000 a year, they’ll be paying the true cost of their degrees, she said — and the additional funds will be redistributed to underfunded francophone universities in the name of equity.

(To be clear, Quebec anglophones attending Quebec universities will continue to pay the much lower price of about $2,800).

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But is this really about the money?

After losing a byelection to the Parti Québécois this month, the Legault government appears to be in panic mode.

In its new language “offensive,” the government has zeroed in on anglophone universities as its next scapegoat for the decline of French and, as French Language Minister Jean-François Roberge made clear, is taking aim at students from the ROC who speak English in downtown Montreal.

Some 32,000 students from outside Quebec attend university here each year and half of them study in English. These out-of-province students already pay more than Quebecers, but the amount is on par with the average undergraduate tuition (minus ancillary fees) at other Canadian universities (for instance: $6,590 at the University of Toronto; $5,843 at the University of British Columbia; and $8,853 at Dalhousie University.)

Charging double won’t just be a competitive disadvantage for McGill, Concordia and Bishop’s; it will be an outright deterrent.

Since the three English schools draw a significant portion of their student bodies from out of province, this new fee structure will be “devastating” for recruitment, in the words of Bishop’s principal. This could in turn be disastrous for academic excellence and financial stability as professors and researchers eschew schools that let in the richest students instead of the best and brightest.

And if fewer students come, there won’t be much money to funnel to the francophone institutions. So what’s the point?

This isn’t the first time the Legault government has deliberately undermined English-speaking institutions.

Bill 40, abolishing school boards, was declared unconstitutional by the courts. The government is appealing anyway. Legault nixed funding for a new health sciences pavilion at Dawson College and diverted the money to French CEGEPs. Bill 96 capped enrolment for francophones and allophones at English colleges, ensuring they can never grow.

The attack on English universities suggests once more the Legault government has few if any constructive ideas on how to promote and protect French. Its go-to strategy is punitive, destructive, political and parochial, aimed at tearing down the English community’s institutions — and it smacks of contempt.

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