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'Let's debunk myths about Quebec's tuition hikes'

OPINION: Concordia President Graham Carr says oversimplifications abound but the situation is more nuanced
October 27, 2023

This article was originally published in The Gazette and Le Devoir.

Over the past two weeks, we’ve heard countless figures, arguments and counter-arguments, myths and erroneous theories, about tuition fees for out-of-province and international students. If nothing else, the avalanche of opinions on university funding demonstrates one thing: It’s a complex issue that deserves in-depth discussion.

Oversimplifications abound but the situation is more nuanced.

Let’s start with Ontario students who “study at a discount” here, while a Quebecer in Ontario pays $35,000 or more. With this example, an exception is presented as the rule. A few medical, law and business programs in one province were selected and compared with those in Quebec.

In fact, the average tuition in Canada is $7,500 per year, compared with $9,000 in Quebec for non-resident Canadian students. Furthermore, the vast majority of out-of-province students study in the humanities, pure sciences and fine arts. In these disciplines, it already costs $3,000 more for a student from Vancouver or Toronto.

It has also been widely claimed that the deregulation of fees for international students has disproportionately benefited English-speaking universities, leaving French-speaking institutions underfunded. Here too, the reality is more complex.

Yes, the current framework — created by the government in 2018 — has generated an imbalance. But Concordia, which since its inception has been a university based on ensuring access to higher education, has never been rich. What’s more, international students, except those from France and Belgium who benefit from an exemption, are self-financing. The government — and therefore the Quebec taxpayer — does not subsidize them in undergraduate and professional master’s programs.

For the other students who are subsidized, the government generates revenue from these enrolments as well as from those of students from other provinces. English-language universities have returned more than $300 million to the government since 2019 thanks to these enrolments. The funds are then redistributed throughout the Quebec university network, while only some universities assume the costs of recruiting and supporting those students. These revenues would decrease with the announced measures.

To complete the picture, 69.2 per cent of revenues at our French universities come from government grants, compared with 49.4 per cent at our English universities. These grants ensure greater funding predictability.

On financing for infrastructure projects, a significant part of this Quebec funding will go to McGill this year for the Royal Victoria project. This is circumstantial. A few years ago, Université de Montréal would have received the most funding for its MIL campus or HEC with its downtown campus.

Major projects are not funded on a linguistic basis, but according to their relevance and to allow the government not to have to make all investments in the same fiscal year. This year, Concordia will receive $36 million through the Plan québécois des infrastructures for renovations.

Which brings me to the much-used term “English-speaking universities” that presents our institutions as a monolithic block. Yet we are all very different, from the programs we offer to the student populations we host. At Concordia, for example, at least 54 per cent of international students stay in Quebec after graduation. More important, 70 per cent of our students are from Quebec.

We need to have a discussion that takes all these complexities into account — revenues, subsidies, expenses and challenges facing universities, as well as the contributions each of us makes to a knowledge ecosystem crucial to Quebec’s future.

Let’s avoid simplistic formulas that won’t help us tackle the real problem: the underfunding of the entire university network, which has been denounced for years. Unfortunately, the government’s measures are simply a redistribution of existing funds, which will certainly decline further with the loss of students from outside Quebec.

Above all, let’s agree that universities are more than just a ledger for adding or subtracting numbers, columns of expenses or revenues. Let’s protect their core missions of promoting knowledge, innovation and talent, as well as their contributions to Quebec society and its economy.

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