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Quebec universities sound the alarm over lack of funding

Université de Montréal

Université de Montréal

BY KAREN SEIDMAN

Quebec’s universities dared to raise the spectre of tuition hikes with a publicity campaign this week that highlighted their critical underfunding — and challenged the party leaders to make university finances part of the election campaign.

The situation is so dire, said Université de Montréal rector Guy Breton, that the province’s leaders must do what it takes by 2020 to boost university funding or they will jeopardize our university system, which is critical to Quebec’s economy.

“That means subsidies, tuition fees, a tax on companies, I don’t care what it is,” he said in an interview. “I just want per student funding here equivalent to the average of the rest of Canada.”

After an election campaign in 2012 that was so focused on the issue of university funding, and which was actually sparked by the massive student uprising against increased tuition fees, the current campaign seems to have gone in entirely the opposite direction.

University funding hasn’t been mentioned at all.

At least not until a widespread publicity campaign by Quebec’s university rectors earlier this week, with full-page ads in newspapers proclaiming university education is “the critical issue no one is talking about.”

And in big, bold, colourful numbers, Quebec’s 15 university rectors revealed the elephant in the room: Quebec universities have an average of $5,000 a year less to spend per student than other universities in Canada.

The average per student in the rest of Canada is $15,798, while it is $10,844 in Quebec.

It is a problem, they said, that is going to have serious consequences here.

“I’m pretty astonished that no one has been talking about this and we’re halfway through the campaign,” said Breton. He was one of the instigators of the publicity campaign, which cost the universities less than $40,000, he said.

Breton believes after the huge backlash against the Liberals’ plan to hike tuition, after the invasion of red squares and the incredible social unrest two years ago, this time around everyone is simply too scared to talk about university funding.

“They’re scared it will bring the issue of tuition fees back, they don’t want to be pulled back into the 2012 election,” he said in an interview. “But it’s not because something is dangerous that you should not address it.”

The figures given don’t include research budgets, which only go toward targeted research and not education, and don’t incorporate the $1.8 billion the PQ has pledged to reinvest in higher education by 2020.

At a news conference earlier this week, Marois said all of Quebec’s stakeholders participated in last year’s Summit on Higher Education and agreed there should be a reinvestment in universities. The money pledged should “correct the situation,” she said.

Former student leader and current PQ candidate Martine Desjardins added that one of the working committees established at the summit is on university financing, but it hasn’t been given time to complete its work yet.

But McGill University Principal Suzanne Fortier met with that committee recently and said they made it clear that their mandate is to decide on the allocation of funds, but won’t address the issue of how much money is needed.

And, she said, even with the $1.8 billion pledged by the PQ — which would be welcome — Quebec would still be below the Canadian average. She believes that investment might close about half of the gap.

“Higher education seems to be absent from this campaign, but we believe it’s important to talk about,” she said.

Breton said he can’t be convinced that this underfunding isn’t going to start eroding Quebec’s excellent higher education — and students are usually the first to pay with lesser services and poorer resources.

“We bought this publicity so the campaign and the public would be awakened to this reality.” (THE GAZETTE)

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