Opinion: Quebec should heed U.S. lessons on tuition hikes

As an American in Montreal, I gained a new perspective on issues of language and identity that would not have otherwise been possible.

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When I decided to enrol at McGill University as a doctoral student in English literature, I was drawn to its prestige as one of the world’s great universities. Although rankings are, at best, unreliable and highly subjective measures, when I entered McGill, in 1997, The Times of London ranked McGill as the eighth-best university in the world.

I was well aware that McGill produced more Nobel Prizes and more Rhodes Scholars than any other Canadian university, and that McGill had a stellar English program. I had previously studied at Berkeley and the University of Chicago, but McGill was where this American-born student raised in Virginia wanted to be.

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While the academic prestige was obvious, that was only a part of the draw. Montreal and Quebec were decisive factors in my choice to move for three years to Montreal. The chance to study at an English-language university while being immersed in French-Canadian culture offered an experience that no other institution could match.

The timing of my decision played an important part in my education. The year before I applied to McGill, Quebec citizens voted to remain in Canada. It was a time fraught with questions of identity, language and politics and how Quebec fit into Canada and alongside the sometimes dominating presence of its neighbour to the south.

As an American living in Montreal, I gained a new perspective on these issues of language and identity that would not have been possible had I attended a university in another province or in the U.S.

No other institutions function as well at bridging the anglophone and allophone world to that of French Canada than McGill University and the other two English-speaking universities. It is a gross oversimplification, as Premier François Legault and Higher Education Minister Pascale Déry argue, that Quebec taxpayers merely subsidize English-speaking students who ultimately leave Quebec without contributing to the province or the preservation of French.

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On the contrary, those students who leave Quebec do so having lived in Montreal for three, four or more years in a fully immersive experience. Many would not otherwise have studied French had they not enrolled in Quebec; those who leave do so with a much keener sense of the needs and perspectives of francophone culture.

Because McGill produces so many leaders in so many fields, its graduates have a disproportionate ability to influence how others perceive Quebec. If anything, Quebec’s investment in its anglophone universities provides an army of ambassadors who sell the province’s best features to others who may overlook what it has to offer.

My influence individually is quite small, but my frequent treks with friends and family to Montreal, my support of several Quebec artistic and cultural institutions, and my participation in and encouragement of more nuanced dialogue with non-Quebecers regarding the significance of language and culture are all directly the result of my having lived in Montreal for three years as a student at McGill.

In raising tuition drastically for non-Quebec students, the province risks making the same mistake state governments in the U.S. have made in raising out-of-state tuition at public universities. By sharply increasing the cost to out-of-state and international students, American public universities have become more insular: red states get redder, blue states bluer, and the political divide in America becomes a deeper chasm.

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Higher tuition costs ensure that class divisions are exacerbated as well. Only the well-to-do can afford the benefits of “going away to college.” For those less financially able, such an important broadening of outlook is closed off.

Enhancing McGill’s prestige and the attractiveness of English-speaking universities is a great selling point for Quebec. It is in Quebec’s interest to keep the best and brightest of the anglophone and allophone world — students, faculty and scholars — wanting to come to McGill and experience Quebec.

After a more than 20-year hiatus, Richard Aberle is finishing his dissertation at McGill University on the poetry of Wallace Stevens. He lives in Nevada.

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