Marlene Jennings: Help French universities; don't hurt English ones

The CAQ government has produced no studies to show its tuition scheme will do anything to boost French. Here’s another way to go about it.

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Over the past days and weeks, much has been written about Quebec’s plan to impose major changes to university tuition fees for out-of-province students.

Currently, students from the rest of Canada at Quebec universities pay annual tuition fees of just under $9,000. These fees apply regardless of whether these students attend a French or English institution. However, the majority of ROC students are enrolled at McGill, Concordia or Bishop’s — that is, English universities. As of next fall, their tuition will jump to at least $17,000 under the new few structure. 

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Premier François Legault and his ministers, Jean-François Roberge (French language) and Pascale Déry (higher education) claim the goals of this unprecedented hike is to preserve the French language, address the underfunding of French universities and stop the anglicization of Montreal. 

In my view, no fair-minded person could or would object to the first and second goals. I for one support any and all policies that will actually protect and promote French, the official and common language of my belle province. Which is why I staunchly oppose Bill 96 as it does nothing for the French language while eroding the rights of English-speakers. But that’s for another column.

Given the overwhelming negative reaction to this new policy from the academic, student and business sectors, one would expect the Coalition Avenir Québec government to pause and perhaps rethink its plan. But let’s get real: Legault has shown he doesn’t like the back-step when he’s dancing; his preferred style is forward, forward, turn, turn, turn.

The CAQ has produced no studies to show that doubling tuition fees for this category of students will be effective in promoting and protecting French. And to me, no data or studies equals hot air. Which got me thinking: Are there other ways that might do the trick, at least in part?

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Here’s one idea: Keep the annual tuition fees as they are (or adjusted for cost-of-living increases) but provide a rebate to ROC students who choose to attend one of our French universities. The rebate could be 25 per cent, for example, and implemented at the end of each academic year based upon the number of credits the student achieved in said year.

Given that current tuition fees in Quebec for ROC students is pretty much in line with what those students would pay to study in their own province or in another, a policy of rebating part of tuition fees for those ROC students enrolled in our French universities might attract more students to make that choice. 

It’s well established that the demand for French-immersion schooling outside Quebec is thriving (and yet, woefully short for places). Those students could be a potential pool of ROC students here.

Imagine: Thousands of graduates of French-immersion high school programs being told that if they continue their post-secondary education at a French university in Quebec, they would be eligible for a substantial rebate.

It might be that they would initially pay tuition fees similar to anywhere else in Canada, including in Quebec, but 25 per cent (or more) would be reimbursed at the end of each academic year, subject to enrolment in a French university for the subsequent academic year. 

Under such a plan, English universities in Quebec would not be penalized, and  French universities would become much more attractive post-secondary learning options for out-of-province students.

What do you think?

Marlene Jennings is a former president of the Quebec Community Groups Network and a former Liberal MP. She sits on the boards of several community organizations.

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