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Editorial: Our Dollar Store Principal

Apparently, the recent tuition defreeze just wasn’t enough for McGill Principal Heather Munroe-Blum. In an opinion piece posted on The Gazette’s web site last week, the Principal laments Quebec’s “Dollar Store” tuition policy, once again encouraging the province’s universities to hike fees and sink or swim in the free market.

Munroe-Blum’s 900-word article is thick with corporate newspeak. She waxes on about “strategy” and “competition,” as if our universities were cutthroat private operations in a zero-sum game. It’s clear that the Principal is thinking big: she even introduces the article by asking us to consider Quebec’s competition in “a globalized world,” as if that cliché hadn’t lost its meaning long ago. It’s troubling that our Principal would view universities in such terms, affording little room for a vision of universities as places of learning.

Her other arguments are just as troubling. In her 10-point wish list, Munroe-Blum makes clear her idealized university system: it would be unburdened by regulation from the government or its cumbersome equalization programs, so that universities could build “core distinctive strengths in key areas of advantage.” It would target international students, who fill McGill’s coffers with much higher tuition, over Quebec’s own students. It would emphasize graduate studies and high-profile research over undergraduate learning. Above all, it would allow for a tuition system that asks students to foot more of the bill, making university less accessible.

In arguing for hiking our “Dollar Store” tuition, Munroe-Blum is in effect calling for a less educated Quebec. From British Columbia to Ontario, the record shows that when tuition goes up, governments don’t step up financial aid enough to keep universities accessible. Her calls for international tuition deregulation and against equalization efforts would mean that the financial rift between schools like l’Université du Québec à Montreal and McGill grows wider.

Perhaps most unsettling is that Munroe-Blum’s call for increased government funding is an apparent afterthought at the bottom of her list. At a time when the Principal is racking up donations from private philanthropists and corporations, it’s left to students to lobby the government for more funding. More help from the federal and provincial governments is the only guarantee of Quebec’s universities remaining high-quality and accessible, but Munroe-Blum has shifted her focus toward demanding less regulation, less equalization, and less accessibility.

This vision directs resources toward the province’s richest universities, and away from Quebec as a whole. For Quebec’s universities to succeed, its leaders and students must continue to demand proper funding from Ottawa and Quebec City. There is money there: Canada is sitting on a sizeable budget surplus, and the provincial Liberals chose to cut taxes last year, despite polls showing that Quebecers would prefer the money went to public programs like education.

Munroe-Blum has once again put forward a vision of universities as companies producing for a global economy, rather than places of learning and growth. If our Principal wonders why students voted to censure her at a 600-person SSMU General Assembly last semester, she now has her reason: we simply don’t see eye to eye on what make a university system great.