News | Munroe-Blum talks tuition hikes

Principal fields questions from student journalists

Principal Heather Munroe-Blum sat down with journalists from The Daily, the McGill Tribune, and Le Délit yesterday to discuss tuition, student aid, and private sector research at McGill, among other issues.

Asked if she would continue her long-standing support of the Ministry of Education’s stated objective of raising tuition in 2012, even if the provincial government declined to increase its financing of Quebec’s universities, Munroe-Blum did not give a definitive answer.

“No, our position is that they’ve got to invest in student aid and they’ve got to invest in the operating grant…it’s a package,” she said.

The principal also said that the administration “would be happy to report on, annually, whether or not the integrated policy of raising fees…along with a commitment to growing student aid, actually is reaching the goal.”

She went on to reiterate that Quebec universities face an $800-million funding gap compared to other Canadian provinces. She added that “the government needs to play its role at an effective level,” to combat under-financing.

The principal also stuck to her position that Quebec tuition should rise to the national average, which stands at $5,138 for undergraduates and $5,182 for graduates. This would amount to more than a 100 per cent increase – $2,723 – from the current rate for Quebec-resident undergraduates, and a similar leap for graduates.

Munroe-Blum’s most prominent recent exposition of her tuition plans came in early September at the National Assembly’s Committee on Culture and Education in Quebec City.

At the principal’s Town Hall on Tuesday, Adrian Kaats, PhD II Engineering student and a Daily columnist, asked Munroe-Blum if she told the McGill Board of Governors (BoG) this summer that she would “go to the standing committee on culture and education and tell our government that McGill thinks tuition should rise.”

Munroe-Blum’s complete response to Kaats was: “It was presented as ‘For Information’ to the Board [of Governors], and I heard no dissent to it.”

“I didn’t say that,” she said in the interview the next morning, when asked about the exchange. Kaats’ question, she maintained, was simply “on the principle of tuition.”

She went on to say, “I don’t actually remember who said what at the [BoG] meeting.”

When told that, at the Town Hall, she said the BoG had no objection to her planned presentation to the National Assembly, Munroe-Blum replied, “I think I qualified it,” adding, “I don’t like doing ‘he-said she-said.’”

She went on to say that the BoG did not vote on the plans she would present the committee.

At the Town Hall, Munroe-Blum said that she has not asked any of McGill’s student societies to “sign on,” to the administration’s tuition plans.

“Students have never been in support of increases in tuition,” she said at the interview. “I wasn’t when I was a student.”

Asked why students continued to feel this way, Munroe-Blum answered, “You think of your own experience, right? You don’t look at the trends across the population of the university or the population of the province.”

When asked by Le Délit if she would consider modulating tuition based on the projected future incomes of graduates, she said in French, “I don’t think it’s black and white.”

Munroe-Blum added, however, “there’s a question whether you might charge an Engineering student more,” than an Arts student based on the cost of the respective programs.

Early in the meeting, the principal said that low tuition alone does not increase accessibility to university. “My view is – and I think the data supports it, in fact – when you have…low tuition fees, and a declining investment per student on the part of government, accessibility is always hurt. It’s not facilitated.”

“Those who are in financial need don’t need low tuition,” she continued. “They need a grant of some kind…or a combination of grant and loan, to pay for all of the things you need when you’re going to university.”

Munroe-Blum went on to emphasize McGill’s intention of increasing student aid while raising tuition. McGill’s 2010-2011 budget projects a $2.9-million increase in student aid over last year, the product of a policy that earmarks thirty per cent of net new tuition revenue for financial aid. Seventy-five per cent of total student aid will go to graduates this year, with 25 per cent going to undergraduates.

Munroe-Blum conceded that there are still students who cannot afford to go to McGill.

“We know there’s still a big gap between our ability to be confident that every student who’s qualified to come to McGill can come independent of their financial need,” she said.

She added that McGill has been able to provide more student aid in programs that have seen tuition deregulated. The most recent such example is the MBA, which saw its in-province tuition skyrocket over the summer from under $2,000 to $32,500.

In April, the provincial government threatened to slash McGill’s general funding by up to $30,000 for each of the roughly 150 in-province students being made to pay the dramatically increased tuition. Responding to a question from the Tribune about the status of these threats, Munroe-Blum said, “We’re in discussions on that.”

The principal returned several times during the meeting to her distaste for parts of the Quebec government’s university policy.

She noted that the provincial government stopped tracking the income status of university students, suggesting that Quebec did so deliberately to cover the failure of their university policy.

“There’s only one reason to stop measuring,” she said. “When the policy doesn’t fit the outcome, you stop measuring.”

Munroe-Blum also objected to Bill 38, the province’s attempt in 2009 to mandate how universities compose their governing boards. She added that the government also meddles too much in what kind of research McGill does.

“Governments would have us do applied research, often, and not do the discovery, blue-sky thinking, scholarship and research that we believe is the fundamental role of the university,” she said. “As a publicly-funded university, the government wants to tell us what to do.”

She was more amenable to working with corporations. “There is room for us to have a much more productive relationship with the private sector,” she said.

“Corporations tend to understand our mission. … They often fund basic research, for example.”

Speaking in French to Le Délit, she added, “I’m not afraid of businesses, of corporations…I don’t think there’s a corporatization of universities, not at all.”

She also noted that the administration is not alone in wanting industry to play a bigger role in research, saying, “There’s actually a very strong interest on the part of both the federal and the provincial government to increase the engagement of industry with [research and development].”

Asked if the influx of corporations sponsoring research might present cases of companies with poor records of corporate social responsibility working at McGill, Munroe-Blum said, “These are real fundamental questions.”

“Certainly we work very hard both on the philanthropic side and on the research side to not have partners that are lacking in public integrity as judged by the law.”

The principal ruled out a student-based body tasked with reviewing the corporations sponsoring research at McGill, however.