The Daily spoke to newly-elected MNA Françoise David of Québec solidaire (QS) on Friday about her party’s vision for higher education in the province, the problems facing universities, and what QS would insist upon at the summit planned by the Parti Québécois (PQ) government for later this spring to address the funding, role, and future of higher education in Quebec.
Two camps have formed in the university funding debate. On one side sits the Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universities du Québec (CREPUQ) – the federation which represents the administrations of Quebec’s 18 universities – which argues that universities in the province are severely underfunded. A CREPUQ study released in 2010 cites $620 million as the amount necessary to bring the province’s universities up to snuff.
On the other sit the student federations, who say that the problem is one of misallocation and mismanagement, and who argue that the figure cited by CREPUQ only points to the disparity between the funds available to Quebec universities as opposed to the Canadian average rather than to a quantified need.
But for QS, according to David, the issue is not quite so black and white.
“I’m not an expert on university finances, but it’s certainly possible that there’s an underfunding,” David told The Daily in French. “It hasn’t been conclusively determined either way for me… But I also think that a lot of cleaning up needs to happen. Senior administrative salaries have definitely gotten ridiculous, especially with principals and rectors. McGill’s principal is the best example of this.”
Her party, however, does believe that the provincial funding model needs to be reassessed. With most universities’ dominant grants coming from head count, universities are pushing their enrolment numbers past capacity, according to David.
For its part, McGill has seen total enrolment rise by over 13 per cent since 2006, representing over 4,500 new students.
Furthermore, private sector funding has prioritized subsidized research over teaching, and led to the “development of certain disciplines for entirely financial reasons,” David said.
David also pointed to what she believes is a recurring preoccupation with prestige.
“For me, it’s an ideological question. I don’t know why we have to compete with the best universities in the world […] I think we have to be realistic.” Research and innovation are critical and should be encouraged, she said, but the role of universities should also be to foster “critical thought” in the public.
At Senate on October 22, McGill Principal Heather Munroe-Blum pointed to a drop in the University’s rankings – from 28 to 34 in the world, according to the Times Higher Education – as a cause for concern, and as a direct result of underfunding.
Since its inception in 2006, QS has advocated for the abolition of tuition in Quebec. David said that with the support of student federation Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (CLASSE) and, most recently, the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN) – Quebec’s second-largest trade union federation – QS hopes to put free tuition on the table during the summit.
“Because we’ve kept tuition frozen for so long, pretty soon given the way that the cost of living is going up, tuition will be – comparatively speaking – basically free,” said David. “But we think we need to go further, we need to get to a point where student debt is zero.”
QS believes the solution is simple: reinstate part of a tax abolished in 2007. The tax in question was levied on the permanent capital of all businesses in the province, and QS suggests reinstating the part which deals with financial institutions, “which don’t produce anything in the first place, but essentially make money off of money,” David explained.
According to QS and CLASSE’s calculations, this would generate at least $737 million, a number they consider more than adequate to finance free tuition.