Toula Drimonis: With tuition scheme, CAQ accelerates race to the bottom

Every time this government pulls these moves, Quebec’s reputation suffers just a little bit more.

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The Quebec government’s decision to exorbitantly raise tuition fees for out-of-province students has all the hallmarks of the CAQ’s crass political opportunism and wedge politics. The decision is embarrassingly provincial, shows a limited grasp of the millions universities contribute to the local economy, is based on financial half-truths, and motivated by a bad-faith crabs-in-the-bucket mentality that, once again, makes Quebec look like a bad bet for those interested in moving or investing their money and time here.

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This government seems to constantly conflate the protection of majority rights with the deliberate disrespect of, well, everyone else. Premier François Legault’s obsessive need to define the “right” type of Quebecer welcome to live, work or study here has given birth to Bill 21, Bill 96, the PEQ fiasco, attempting to throw out 18,000 skilled-worker applications in the midst of major labour shortages, dog-whistle politics contributing to xenophobia and masquerading as legitimate immigration policies, and now this.

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And every time the CAQ pulls these moves — which seem to almost never involve any consultations or economic impact studies — Quebec’s reputation suffers just a little bit more.

If there’s a financial imbalance that exists between French-speaking and English-speaking institutions, we should rectify it without engaging in a race to the bottom. Currently, there’s a lot of disinformation and confusion floating around regarding those fees. University administrators say the numbers quoted by the government are inaccurate and present a false image of hoped-for results. If so, it wouldn’t be the first time the CAQ has been caught not having done its homework. This government seems good at improvising simplistic solutions to complex problems in its quest for easy votes.

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There are far more proactive ways to incentivize French-language acquisition, retain graduates and redress inequities — ways that don’t needlessly divide Quebecers, treat students as political pawns and compromise world-class academic research. Instead, we’re kneecapping long-established, top-tier institutions whose out-of-province students contribute hundreds of millions of dollars annually to our economy. But I suppose it’s easy to convince yourself that it’s OK to rob Peter to pay Paul when deep down you don’t believe Peter is part of the “we” that deserves protecting.

Damaging English-language institutions’ viability and selling it as “French-language protection” is deeply disingenuous. The projected earnings funnelled to French-language institutions are not even guaranteed. What is guaranteed is what these economic engines and innovation hubs bring Quebec in terms of talent, research, vitality, diversity, international connections and benefits to local economies. Students don’t live off air for four to five years. They eat, they spend on goods and services, they work and pay taxes, they raise Quebec’s profile internationally. Sherbrooke’s economy positively relies on Bishop’s students to survive. How exactly does English threaten that community?

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Instead of measures compelling more francophones to study here, we’re hobbling English universities. Instead of working with McGill to understand how it brings in impressive alumni donations, we’re dismissing a Quebec success story simply because it’s an English success story. The CAQ appears to be so consumed by wedge politics it is unable to see the institutions penalized by this move are also Quebec institutions.

This myopic decision renders invisible and unimportant those who speak and love French but who studied in English universities. It hierarchizes Quebecers and concludes that some are worth more. And it completely ignores the thousands upon thousands of English university grads who fell in love with Quebec, who stayed and built lives here, raising French-speaking children, who, in turn, will also contribute to Quebec. There are far more of them than this government seems to realize.

Legault said the change represents “one more gesture to reverse the decline of French in Quebec.” Nonsense! All it does is make Quebec appear insular and sectarian, uninterested in outsiders. Perhaps that was the goal after all.

Toula Drimonis is a Montreal journalist and the author of We, the Others: Allophones, Immigrants, and Belonging in Canada. She can be reached on X (formerly Twitter) @toulastake

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