News  Governance bill responds to $380-M UQAM debt

Days after promising to bail University de Québec À Montréal (UQÀM) out of its $380-million debt, Minister of Education Michelle Courchesne announced she will finally send a bill to the Quebec National Assembly that addresses provincial university governance.

The debt UQÀM has incurred over the past three years is in part a result of real-estate investments like the still-unfinished Ilôt Voyageur site – a complex of dorms and offices – that had been dragging the university steadily into bankruptcy until the government agreed to pick up the tab.

In a Ministry press release, Courchesne stated that UQÀM called to attention the need for a better governance legislation.

“I am more determined than ever to move forward this fall with a bill that will better regulate governance of our universities without impeding their autonomy,”she said.

The bill will attempt to resolve internal problems Courchesne believed led to UQAMs debt, such as a need for more independent governing boards and increased transparency.

While it has been applauded by McGill principal Heather Munroe-Blum and the Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec (CREPUQ) – of which Munroe-Blum is president – the Federation étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ), an umbrella organization of student associations, called the bill cosmetic.

FEUQ, CREPUQ, and Couchesne agreed that university accountability needs reform. But while Courchesne and CREPUQ have emphasized that governing boards should primarily feature individuals independent from the university, FEUQ President David Paradis disagreed that this would remove conflicts of interest.

“In the UQÀM situation, it was the so-called independent administrators who just slept and let the school sink nearly half a billion in debt. The first whistle-blowers were in fact students and teachers,” said Paradis. “Bringing in more so-called ‘independent people’ is most likely the best way to repeat the UQÀM disaster across Quebec.”

Instead, Paradis stressed the need for more direct reform of university accountability structures.

“Principals need to leave behind their selfish philosophies…[and give] the public a clear picture of what’s going on: where are public funds going [and] how are they spent?” he said.

The bill, which has yet to be presented, will likely be based on recommendations of the Institut pour la gouvernance d’organisations privées et publiques (IGOPP), according to both Paradis and CREPUQ Director-General Daniel Zizian. The IGOPP, co-founded in 2005 by HEC Montreal and Concorida, presented 12 principles in their working group’s September 2007 report outlining better university governance.

The bill’s incarnation and its actual effects on universities like McGill remain to be seen, and Paradis hopes that the bill will emphasize more accountability before presented.

“This is an invitation for her to change her project so that it can solve the problems and not create more of them.”