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Montreal universities are losing their edge: report

McGill University campus

McGill University campus

By Karen Seidman

Montreal’s status as a university city is weakening and that could mean dire consequences for the city’s economy, according to a new report by the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal.

The Board of Trade’s report on university funding warns that if the government doesn’t address the chronic underfunding of universities and change its policies concerning international students, the city’s universities will lose their ability to compete in the global market.

“They are in a precarious situation,” said Board of Trade president Michel Leblanc. “They need stability to make proper financial decisions and to attract professors and funding if they are competing on a global playing field.”

Some universities, like McGill University, have been pushing hard recently to convince the Parti Québécois government to change its policies governing international students — an issue currently being studied by one of the committees established as an outcome of the February summit on higher education.

The Board of Trade sides with McGill on this matter.

“For reasons of funding and equity, the government needs to consider removing the cap on tuition fees for foreign students,” according to the Board of Trade report. “At the same time, it should review its preferential treatment of certain francophone students.”

Students from France and a limited number of students from other countries are entitled to study in Quebec at exactly the same tuition rate that applies to local students.

Other students, even from elsewhere in Canada, have to pay a surplus that can boost their tuition from $2,100 to almost $15,000 a year. However, with the exception of six deregulated programs — law, science, math, engineering, computer science and management — the universities don’t get to keep the extra fees they collect. The money is taken in by Quebec, which redistributes it among all the province’s universities.

McGill complains that it loses more than $50 million a year from this operation. Last year, for example, it collected almost half of the surplus for the whole province, about $76 million, but only got back 15 per cent, about $24 million.

Considering that the university is now grappling with budget cuts of more than $43 million over two years, imposed unexpectedly by the government last December, that money generated by international students could really make a difference.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Olivier Marcil, vice-principal of external relations at McGill. “To my knowledge, we are the only place in Canada that does this. We agree the government should set tuition for Quebec students, but the policies for international students should be the same as across North America.”

That’s why McGill and some other universities have been demanding that the additional 12 disciplines not excepted from this distribution rule be deregulated as well.

According to Leblanc, the way Quebec is doing things just doesn’t make sense.

“If universities can attract foreign students, they should charge what they feel is optimal,” he said. “The way it’s done now defeats the purpose. If universities are going to be aggressive in recruiting students, they should be rewarded if they’re successful.”

That is only one of the challenges facing Montreal’s universities. According to the report, “underfunding is also creating a relative deterioration in the quality of teaching.

“The current system of funding, based on the number of students registered, does not encourage performance or excellence,” the report concludes. “For universities to continue to play a key role in the city’s economic development, the government must give them the funding they need to be competitive.”

Without that, “the future of our knowledge society is compromised.” (The Gazette)

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