Day 2 of PGSS higher education summit turns gaze inward

Posted on Wednesday, December 5, 2012

PGSS Secretary General Jonathan Mooney served as Moderator of the panel discussion "Who should pay for university financing," which featured McGill Principal Heather Munroe-Blum. / Photo: Owen Egan

By Jim Hynes

The second day of the two-day Educational Strategies for McGill: A Summit on the Roles of Higher Education in Quebec, co-organized by the Post‐Graduate Students’ Society of McGill University (PGSS), the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) and the Association for Graduate Students Employed at McGill, featured the same panel topics as Day One, but with a stronger McGill focus. Each of the day’s five panel sessions featured a member of the University’s senior administration and included members of various McGill organizations, namely the PGSS, SSMU and the McGill Association of University Teachers (MAUT).

McGill Provost Anthony Masi didn’t encounter much resistance when he argued the “reality” corner during the second panel discussion (with PGSS Secretary General Jonathan Mooney and MAUT President-elect Ken Hastings): University underfunding: myth or reality?

“The global picture for funding is that Quebec universities in general are underfunded compared to their peers,” said Masi. “It doesn’t appear to be because Quebec is providing a lower subsidy; it’s about average, about fifth or sixth in the country and two-thirds of our operating budget. But the shortfall is the differential in tuition fees that Quebec students pay. That’s the model that we operate with in Canada. It’s not an ideological statement, it’s a pragmatic statement. That’s the way funding works.”

The fourth panel of the day featured McGill Principal Heather Munroe-Blum, SSMU VP External Robin-Reid Fraser, former MAUT president John Galaty and former PGSS VP-External Mariève Isabel in a discussion on “Who should pay for university financing?”

“My view is that dominantly our university system should be supported by governments…and that there should be no displacement of sustained effective investment by government in the universities,” Munroe-Blum said. “So if tuition rises, government shouldn’t pull back, if philanthropy rises, government shouldn’t pull back, if there are partnerships that supports the educational and research mission and those bring in revenues, government shouldn’t pull back. Second…I think students and families ought to pay to the best of their ability, and according to the true cost of the particular programs they’re in. But I underscore ‘to the best of their ability’…and I think universities have to pay…by investing in quality and accessibility, not in a trade-off, one or the other.”

But while Munroe-Blum made clear she believes that government should bear the “lion’s share” of expenses, “one has to look at the ability of a government to pay, and here we have a problem. It’s quite a big problem in Quebec right now.”

Isabel, meanwhile, bemoaned the fact that good, neutral information can be hard to come by in such a discussion as this (university funding), and also questioned some of the conventional thinking on higher education and who benefits from it.

“Who should pay? Yesterday at one of the panels we had people from outside McGill talking about this. One was Claude Montmarquette (President of the Centre for Interuniversity Research and Analysis of Organizations)…and his answer to this question was ‘people who benefit from it.’ I agree with that,” Isabel said. “Where I disagree with him is in the rest of his argument. While he was arguing that students benefited the most, and therefore should pay their fair share, and that it should be higher, I’m arguing that society as a whole benefits even more from it, especially when it comes to Graduate studies.”

Other panels featured discussions on university-private sector partnerships, research versus teaching, and international and out-of-province students.

PGSS organizers said they set up the event “to enable PGSS members to participate in these debates in a process that is inclusive, accessible, and participatory for a greater number of people and to discuss key issues directly with relevant stakeholders…” and that they hoped it would “inform the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec’s call for content for the Quebec Summit,” and suggest “alternative content that could be addressed at the Quebec Summit.”

Jonathan Mooney, who served as both a panellist and a panel moderator during the event said that while he had hoped it would be better attended, he was “pleased with how the summit played out.” The more popular sessions attracted about 40 attendees, while a few dozen watched the live stream broadcast of the event.

“I was very happy with the quality of discussion and witnessed a real willingness for panellists on two different sides of an issue to acknowledge the validity of alternative perspectives and really constructively engage with arguments being put forward with others,” Mooney said following the Summit. “I think the Summit showed both that there is a lot of common ground regarding critical issues in higher education and also that when people disagree, they can do so with nuance and acknowledge the value of arguments being put forward by those they disagree with.”

“I’m hoping that different groups in the McGill community might agree on some broad principles in preparation for the Quebec education summit so that we can make a stronger case for these principles,” Mooney said. “If the willingness to see the other side of the picture on complex issues that we witnessed at the McGill Summit remains, such an agreement on principles could become a reality.”

To view the webcasts of the Summit (organized by panel), go here.

To read a Reporter article recapping Day One of the event, click here.

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