Rooted in Quebec
In September, Principal Heather Munroe-Blum led a McGill contingent that travelled to Quebec City to meet with the National Assembly’s Parliamentary Commission on Culture and Education. The McGill representatives outlined the University’s many contributions to Quebec, while raising concerns about funding and governance issues. McGill News contributor Jake Brennan, BA’97, recently spoke to the principal about these matters.
McGill is renowned for its international reach, but do you think Quebecers are well informed about McGill’s contributions to Quebec?
We’ve made great strides in recent years in connecting to all parts of Quebec and we’re receiving increased recognition for it. One indicator of that for me was the very warm and respectful reception we received when we met with the Parliamentary Commission in September. McGill has been developing very substantial collaborations with other Quebec universities, research institutes, hospitals and industry—and not just in the Montreal area. For instance, our Faculty of Medicine oversees tertiary medical care for the people who live in almost 70 per cent of Quebec’s land mass—that includes the Inuit and aboriginal populations in the northern half of Quebec.
Just in terms of our everyday activities, we provide a huge value for Quebec. A new study by the SECOR Group calculates that McGill’s economic impact on Quebec is $5.2 billion each year.
The wonderful diversity of our student body is one of our most invaluable characteristics and the fact that about 6,800 of our students are francophones is an absolutely essential element of this diversity.
In McGill’s presentation to the Commission, you argued for a university funding model that would gradually bring Quebec tuition fees up to the Canadian average. Would higher tuition discourage students from low-income backgrounds from attending university?
In fact, low tuition has not led to more participation for Quebecers; it hasn’t opened the doors for Quebecers from low-income families; and it hasn’t led to a good degree-completion rate for the Quebec system. The Quebec averages in both participation and degree-completion rates are in the bottom of the lower half for Canadian provinces, not in the top half, where you might expect them to be if tuition was, in fact, the only barrier to attending university.
Many studies show that social attitudes are the greatest determinant of the value that young people place on education. My strong belief is that Quebec should embrace the education of its citizens as its top priority and should put in place the resources that reflect that commitment. That would send a powerful message. When I came to Quebec in 2003, it was the number-one province in per-student funding from the government, and now we’re sixth. We’re going the wrong way.
We do need a tuition model that asks students to pay a fair share of the cost of their education—somewhere in the range of the Canadian average. Every time I talk about tuition fees, I stress that at McGill we take 30 cents of every net new dollar and put it into student aid. Our universities need to be properly supported, but that doesn’t have to be at the expense of accessibility. I suspect that not a lot of people know that a quarter of McGill students are the first in their families to attend university. This is another disconnect with our public image —that McGill has only rich students.
You also raised concerns about legislation related to university governance. The government argues that universities must be more accountable. What is your view?
McGill is absolutely committed to being accountable. We revamped our board of governors seven years ago, using the best standards in both the corporate and not-for-profit sectors as our framework. We believe we are now leaders in North America in the way our board operates.
Increased regulation of public institutions—and the OECD has done many studies on this—is actually counterproductive and paralyzing. It adds bureaucracy on both the government and university side, and it hurts quality and productivity.
We would welcome discussing an entente de partenariat with the government that would fund us on the basis of how well we do in the key areas that reflect our academic mission and in areas that are a priority to Quebec. I have absolute confidence in our ability to contribute to Quebec in this way, but we need to be able to make our own decisions about how to reach these goals in order to perform at our best.