Shock over Québec’s fee raise for Anglophone universities

On 13 October, less than a week after McGill University in Montréal in Québec province celebrated its medical school’s number one ranking in Canada by Maclean’s Magazine, the province’s most prestigious English-language university was rocked by the news that the Québec government was doubling the fees for out-of-province English-speaking (Anglophone) students.

Starting next autumn, tuition fees for undergraduates and non-research graduate students (that is, excluding sciences) at McGill, as well as the province’s two other Anglophone universities – Concordia in Montréal and Bishop’s in Sherbrooke, 140 km southeast of Montréal – will rise from CA$8,992 (US$6,500) to CA$17,000 per year, making Quebéc English universities significantly more expensive than the University of Toronto, for example.

Additionally, the province announced that tuition fees for international students – except for countries with which Quebec has agreements (for example, France and Belgium) – will rise to at least CA$20,000. It also removed the limit on what additional fees universities may charge.

The Québec government’s plan has been denounced by the leaders of the three universities as well as municipal politicians, the Liberal opposition in the province’s National Assembly, members of the federal cabinet and business leaders.

Sébastien Lebel-Grenier, Bishop’s principal, summed up the loss of approximately one quarter of the university’s revenue (paid by the 30% of the school’s students who come from other provinces) as “catastrophic”.

In a letter to the McGill community, Principal Deep Saini alluded to “serious consequences” to the university and said that he had mobilised the senior administration, board members and teams across the university “to demonstrate the concrete negative effects these measures would have on McGill, on the higher education sector and on the whole of Québec society”.

Saini also angrily pointed out how the decision is a blow to Montréal’s high-tech education and business sectors.

“A thriving knowledge economy requires a global exchange of talent. The measures announced today will have a major, long-term effect on Québec’s economy. The skilled people we attract and retain contribute significantly to Québec and provide our businesses with the highly qualified workforce they so urgently need,” Saini said.

In response to the tuition changes, McGill has shelved a planned CA$50 million investment over five years in programmes to help Anglophone students and professors to integrate into Québec.

Economic reasons

The government of Québec – known as the Coalition Avenir Québec (Coalition for the Future of Québec CAQ) – gave two reasons for the steep rise in tuition fees.

The first was economic. Since the present tuition fee does not cover the full cost of a student’s education, the government of Québec ends up subsidising the education of tens of thousands of students who end up leaving the province upon graduation.

“It costs the government of Québec and the taxpayers of Québec a very high amount of money for students who came here and who don’t stay here,” Pascale Déry, Québec’s higher education minister, said in the news conference held to announce the change.

According to the minister, Anglophone students from the rest of Canada who come to the province’s three English universities are subsidised to the tune of CA$110 million per year.

Universities will not be able to retain the increased tuition from either Anglophone students or international students. Rather the (English) universities will be required to hand over a not-yet-determined amount per student to the ministry to redress what the CAQ says is an imbalance that favours the English universities.

Between 2019 and 2020, Déry says, McGill, Concordia and Bishop’s received almost 70% of the CA$407 million of international student fees, with the rest being divided among the province’s 16 French language universities, including Université de Montréal, HEC Montréal (École des hautes études commerciales de Montréal), Université Laval and the many campuses of Université du Québec.

This fund, says Déry, will “allow us to better support the French-speaking network [of universities] in attracting international students, particularly in strategic areas for the Québec economy and our public services”.

Neither the minister nor the Québec or national media have noted that in May, the ministry of higher education announced a new funding model for international students who agree to go to regional universities, all of which are French.

Even though Laval, the nation’s oldest university, which traces its roots to a seminary founded in 1663, is in Québec City, the provincial capital, the university is considered a regional university and will receive an increase of 11% (CA$47 million) to provide financial support totalling CA$9,000 for each international student.

According to then minister Hélène David, if a (French) university attracts 100 international students, “it has CA$900,000 to help it recruit, to give scholarships to students if they are not able to pay the price the university asks, to lower the fees of the student’s tuition by taking the equivalent of that money.

“This is money that Anglophones will not have,” she said, according to a report in the Canadian press.

Protecting French

The second reason given by the CAQ for increasing the tuition of Anglophones from the rest of Canada is to dissuade them from coming to Québec because they are seen by the government as a threat to the “French face” of Montréal.

Moments after saying that Anglophone students from outside Québec are still welcome, Déry admitted that the CAQ knows that the tuition increase will lead Anglophone students to shy away from coming to La Belle Province.

“We are increasing the tuition fees so there will be a drop at Concordia, Bishop’s (and) McGill,” she said, and then later: “We’ve made this choice to increase funding of French universities and to protect the French language.”

Jean-François Roberge, Québec’s minister of the French language, didn’t bother with the pro-forma statement about welcoming Anglophone students. “We can’t put on rose-coloured glasses – in Montreal, there are more and more Canadian and international students and they mainly attend English-speaking universities, English-speaking programmes,” he said.

“Currently, these universities receive funds to welcome thousands of Canadian students from outside Québec each year who do not necessarily have knowledge of French. And in government, we feel we need to change the situation and have the courage to do it,” he said.

The minister went on to say that the tens of thousands of Anglophone students who come to Montreal have an anglicising effect on the metropolis, reported the Montréal Gazette on 13 October.

Roberge overstated the number of Anglophone students. Of the 32,000 students from outside the province who study there, approximately half study in English. This means that there are some 16,000 English-speaking students at campuses in downtown Montréal.

According to Statistics Canada (in August), Montreal is a city of 1.7 million people, 58.4% of whom say that French is their mother tongue and about 13% indicate that English is their mother tongue.

Universities as a ‘political scapegoat’

Critics, including the editorial board of the Montreal Gazette, have charged that the real reason the CAQ has picked a fight with the English universities is that it lost a by-election to the separatist Parti Québécois in what had previously been a safe Québec City seat.

“In its new ‘language offensive’, the government has zeroed in on Anglophone universities as its next scapegoat for the decline of French,” the paper wrote on 14 October.

Greg Kelly, the Liberal opposition critic for relations with English-speaking Québecers in Québec’s National Assembly, told the Montreal Gazette a day earlier: “They’re trying to drum up another fight with the English-speaking community, and it’s just quite frustrating.”

While not avowedly separatist, as the PQ is, the government of Québec Premier François Legault is French nationalist.

In 2020, it passed a law that, among other things, dissolved the province’s English language school boards and placed the schools under ‘school service centres’ run by the French school system; Québec’s Superior Court ruled Bill 40 unconstitutional because it infringed on the constitutional rights of Québec’s English minority to run its own schools.

In 2022, Legault’s government abruptly withdrew funding for a new health sciences pavilion at Dawson College, an English junior college in Montréal, saying that the money was needed in French junior colleges. In June of this year, the CAQ capped the enrolments of the province’s English junior colleges to ensure that they would not grow.

Neither the Mayor of Montréal Valérie Plante, nor Mayor of Sherbrooke Évelyn Beaudin, both of whom are Francophone, have supported the provincial government.

Echoing Bishop’s president, Beaudin said the tuition hike threatens the survival of the prestigious 180-year-old institution.

“Bishop’s has historically played an essential role in the academic, cultural and economic outreach of the city. This hike’s negative impact jeopardises the vibrancy and diversity of our student community, while compromising the intercultural exchanges that contribute to the richness of our city,” she said in a prepared statement.

On 21 October, Jean Charest, a former federal Progressive-Conservative (PC) cabinet minister, former leader of the party, as well as former Liberal premier of Québec, waded into the debate, asking: “Is there anyone, honestly, who thinks that the future of the French language is threatened in the streets of Sherbrooke by the presence of Bishop’s university students?”

Charest, who is from Sherbrooke and who represented it for decades in either the federal or provincial parliaments, called the CAQ’s actions “a frontal assault” on both Bishop’s and the region, Les Cantons de l’Est or Eastern Townships.

“It is not by accident that the principal of Bishop’s University sits on the board of directors of the [French] University of Sherbrooke and the rector of the University of Sherbrooke sits on the board of directors of Bishop’s. Our region forms a whole. When a government attacks one of our institutions in such a frontal manner, we must stand up and speak.

“This is a very poorly constructed policy,” he said after making clear that he was equally opposed to it for Concordia and McGill.

Federal politicians have also criticised the plan, including, notably, Liberal Dominic Leblanc, the federal intergovernmental affairs minister.

While admitting that Québec’s government was acting within its jurisdiction, he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on 21 October: “I think in the long term this damages Quebec’s ability, economically and socially, to have interesting, productive long-term relationships with their partners in the federation [of Canada.]”

Montréal’s mayor, who, like Beaudin, was not consulted or informed of the policy before its announcement, told a press conference that the government’s plans “hurt”.

“I’m disappointed because it’s hard for the international reputation of the metropolis of the province of Québec,” said Plante.

While acknowledging that Québec must protect the French language, she pointed out that the hike in tuition fees will benefit Toronto, Ontario not Québec.

With a nod towards Québec’s labour shortage Plante said: “We need workers, we need students, because we want our economy to grow.”

The province’s labour shortage, caused by both an ageing population and the fact that the CAQ government accepts very few immigrants (50,000 of the 1 million immigrants who came to Canada last year) is so severe that in the fourth quarter of 2022, there were 208,000 vacant positions.

High-tech sector skills

Plante didn’t specifically reference Montréal’s thriving video game sector as an example of where the province needs workers, likely because its story is well known in the province. Between 2019 and 2021, employment in this sector grew by 35%.

More than 14,000 people work in some 280 studios – including such giants as Warner Brothers and Ubisoft. The sector generates more than CA$1.4 billion annually.

Graham Carr, Concordia’s principal, and the Conseil du patronat Du Québec (CPQ), which represents more than 70,000 companies, also said that the government’s plans would damage the province’s high-tech sector.

“The Québec economy needs brains, needs talents to support high-tech industries like AI, cybersecurity, battery development, design. This is a moment when all societies are competing for talent, and here we’ve got a policy that is going to set a barrier to recruiting talent to Québec,” Carr told Andy Riga of the Montreal Gazette on 13 October, two weeks after Prime Minster Justin Trudeau and Legault were at the ground-breaking for a CA$7 billion car battery factory being built by the Swedish company Northvolt.

In an interview reported in the Montreal Gazette on 16 October, Denis Hamel, vice-president of the CPQ, echoed Carr’s concerns. The government’s policies means, Hamel said, “we are depriving ourselves of good people, very good people, wanted in our businesses”.

Hamel, whose organisation is normally supportive of the pro-business CAQ, didn’t shy away from administering some harsh medicine to a government that is reticent about immigration and has a history of anti-English policies.

“Research needs people from many countries to work together. Whether we like it or not, research is done mostly in English on this planet.”

No compromises – Really?

For his part, Legault has rejected all criticism.

“I will make no compromises. Unlike other governments who have just talked, we are acting [to protect French] because there are things we can do as the government of Québec. I am determined to reverse the decline of French in Québec,” Legault said.

His comments – which also included saying: “It’s nothing against Anglophones; it is for the survival of French” – were made at the launch of 50 jours dans la vie de Mike Bossy (50 Days in the Life of Mike Bossy).

In the photo accompanying the story in the Montreal Gazette on 17 October, Legault appears quite happy to be speaking with Bossy’s Québecois widow and family of the hockey super-star who died of cancer in April 2022.

The premier is seemingly oblivious to the fact that Bossy, an Anglophone Montréaler, spent his illustrious career with the New York Islanders, in the largest English-speaking sports market in North America.