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Canada: Given little, Quebec universities achieve a lot

As the old saying goes, “You get what you pay for.” This holds true for many things – but not Quebec universities, whose consistently high performance flies in the face of their consistently egregious underfunding.

Each year, Quebec’s universities scrape out their existence using $620 million less than those in other provinces. Yet given little, Quebec’s universities achieve a lot. Our universities graduate 65,000 people each year, and make tremendous economic and social contributions to Quebec.

McGill alone has an annual $5.2-billion impact on the Quebec economy, with $313 million of that stemming from students who come from outside Quebec. And we have universities that consistently rank among the world’s best. In 2011, McGill placed 17th in the world. To quantify this return on investment, consider that U.S. public universities in the top 50 of the QS World University Rankings have revenues between $62,700 and $87,000 per full-time student. With a mere $36,500 per full-time student, McGill is competitive with, and in many cases outperforms, these excellent schools.

Yet increasingly we are being taken to task for what critics claim to be mismanagement – an accusation that is not only untrue, but demonstrates a misunderstanding of the complex nature of 21st-century universities.

Let’s look at the McGill of 2012. When you count students, professors and other staff, McGill’s population of close to 50,000 people is bigger than many Canadian cities. These 50,000 people form a complex, ever-changing organism that has complex, ever-changing needs: state-of-the-art research equipment, student services, databases, software and Internet, space planning and maintenance of infrastructure (a third of the downtown campus buildings predate the Second World War).

Those are just the internal demands, and McGill doesn’t live in a bubble. Quebec and Canada as a whole, like other nations worldwide, are looking to their universities to be drivers of prosperity and well-being. This requires strengthening relationships with the outside world: governments, industries, other universities and, yes, other countries.

It’s no wonder that governments increasingly ask university representatives to accompany them on trade missions. Research and education now lead in positioning trade and reputation in global relations – versus the other way around. And as with internal machinations, these external relationships falter without proper stewardship.

Our complex, globally connected universities do not come cheap. It takes money to do what we do. But accountability isn’t about thrift: it’s about using money responsibly to get results. Our universities could not function without proper governance. Contrary to much of what we’ve been hearing, we do a good job at responsibly managing our activities and our scarce resources. On May 4, the prestigious Moody’s Investors Service gave McGill its second-highest bond rating, Aa1, and a stable outlook.

At McGill, the board of governors provides oversight for the workings of the university. Checks and balances ensure that all activity is conducted in a professional manner, and in strict service of the university’s mission. Moreover, in keeping with best practices, McGill made a sweeping reform of its board of governors, moving from 74 to 25 members who represent university and external stakeholders.

Two new board committees were added – Human Resources and Social Responsibility – and the Audit and Finance Committee separated into two, in order to bring even stronger oversight of all the university’s dealings. This is a matter of public record: each year, McGill and its sister Quebec universities issue detailed annual reports that are publicly available on the National Assembly’s website.

Ultimately, the proof of good management is in the performance. McGill’s rankings are a testament to the talent, energy and drive of Quebec’s students, faculty and staff. Of this there is no doubt. But the achievements of Quebec’s universities also speak to the guidance and direction of their administrators. Were we to compound the very real handicap of underfunding with widespread administrative incompetence, there is simply no way that Quebec’s universities would be as successful as they are.

Any objective look into the management of McGill will show that we are responsible, and we’re getting results. Our universities are serving Quebec in a way that is the envy of other jurisdictions, in a way that has India, China and Brazil, among others, beating a path to our doorway.

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