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Quebec’s Unexpected Tuition Hike Triggers Outcry

Tuition increase for out-of-province students sparks protest and backlash

On October 13, the Quebec government announced new measures around higher education fees for incoming out-of-province and international students studying in Quebec’s English-language universities. Part of an attempt to strengthen the province’s network of francophone universities, the change will take effect starting in fall 2024. Out-of-province students will see their tuition increase from an average of $8,992 to around $17,000 per year, with a greater portion of those fees going to the provincial government. 

As a result, many prospective students are now reconsidering their choice to attend an English-language university in Quebec. Many denounce what they see as a penalty toward English-speaking students and out-of-province French speakers alike. According to preliminary data from Statistics Canada, projected new undergraduate tuition rates in the neighbourhood of $17,000 will be among the highest in the country for domestic students, and the highest overall excluding specialized programs. 

To “protect French”?

According to the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), the plan has two main objectives. First, to stop subsidizing Canadian students who study in anglophone universities and then leave Quebec after graduating; and second, to generate further revenue to better support French-language universities. Despite admitting that the tuition hike would lead to a drop in enrolment in Quebec’s English-speaking universities, Premier Francois Legault stated that these measures are not directed against anglophones but are instead aimed to “protect French.” 

Widespread and immediate backlash

 The plan was immediately criticized by a range of federal, municipal, and local voices that denounced its destructive impact and the lack of consultation conducted prior to the decision. McGill’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Deep Saini, affirmed the administration’s determination to fight this plan and deplored its negative effects on the university and on Quebec society: “We are stronger when our doors are open.” Multiple student groups have also criticized the “improvised and unreasonable” plan on the grounds that it lacks transparency. 

In addition, concerns emerged from the Montreal business community and from le Conseil du patronat around the economic consequences of such measures and their potential to exacerbate the  province’s labour shortage. Mayor Valérie Plante described the plan as a “hard blow to the international reputation of Quebec’s metropolis” and instead encouraged the protection of French language through alternate means, namely positive and proactive measures like lowering tuition fees at francophone universities. Daniel Béland, Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, explained that this decision to raise tuition rested entirely under Quebec’s provincial jurisdiction. He added that Ottawa’s ability to interfere would be very limited due to the threat of federal interference, and it therefore “cannot help [those opposing the bill] directly.”

McGill: impact and student response

McGill’s diverse student community will certainly be affected, seeing as 20 per cent of its 39,500 students come from other Canadian provinces and 30 per cent are international students. According to Professor Béland, the sudden and unprecedented tuition increase will “act as a deterrent for attracting out-of-province students.” Most crucially, McGill risks becoming unattractive for students from less privileged backgrounds, which students like Angelique Gouws have raised concerns about: “As a domestic student that pays for their own tuition, I wouldn’t have come and it’s going to impact McGill in terms of socioeconomic status.” 

Both the Concordia Student Union and the Students’ Society of McGill University have released statements strongly condemning the “undemocratic and discriminatory” tuition hike, arguing that it will “price out the poorest out-of-province students, saddle students with further debts, and require students to work even more during their studies to afford their education,” turning “post- secondary education into a luxury item.” SSMU hosted a Town Hall on Wednesday October 25 to hear directly from students and with the aim of organizing a collective response to the policy. Individual students are also taking further action – the Blue Fall Protest, a student-led march through Montreal organized jointly by members of both McGill and Concordia communities, will take place on October 30 protesting the new tuition plan. McGill student Alex O’Neill organized this protest to fight the plan that will “homogenize Quebec’s public universities on linguistic, class, and academic levels.” 

Josh Kertesz, a student at McGill, said he felt unappreciated: “It makes you feel unwelcome even though you contribute to Quebec while you’re here.” He added that “there’s so much more that [Quebec] can do” that would not involve making education increasingly inaccessible for students who don’t speak French. Gouws also stated that “it would be beneficial to mandate French classes for English universities in Montreal”, highlighting students’ willingness to learn French if given the tools to do so. 

A political move

 Voices arose, including from Liberal Party members, condemning the tuition plan as political rhetoric and as a way for the CAQ to regain popularity after its recent loss to the Parti Québecois (PQ) in a by-election in Jean-Talon. Professor Béland suspects that the CAQ was acting with the strategy of resuscitating its popularity from a recent decline in the polls: “It’s to appeal to their francophone base, especially people outside of Montréal that are tempted to vote for the PQ because it is really aggressive about the protection of French”. He added that “there was a lot of discourse in francophone news media about the perceived decline of French language in Quebec, the CAQ wants to show that they care, but they are doing it through antagonistic and detrimental measures to anglophone institutions and the economy.” 

Professor Béland admits that there continues to be “a lot of uncertainty” as to the potential long-term effects of this decision. He argued “the government might dilute this announcement in response to the backlash that they are facing but they could also double down on this because I heard that they are considering other measures that could again penalize anglophone universities in Quebec.” The precise implementation of the plan and the extent of its repercussions can only remain to be seen.