President Deep Saini (Photo: Pierre Arseneault)

On Campus

President’s Perspective: A serious threat to our special culture

On October 13, the Quebec government announced plans to change the tuition model for students from outside the province studying at Quebec’s universities. The changes, which wouldn’t affect students who are already studying at McGill, are expected to take effect in the fall of 2024.

Story by McGill News

November 2023

On October 13, the Quebec government announced plans to change the tuition model for students from outside the province studying at Quebec’s universities. The changes, which wouldn’t affect students who are already studying at McGill, are expected to take effect in the fall of 2024.

Under this plan, the tuition rate for Canadian students from outside Quebec would almost double – from $8,992 to around $17,000. The changes would affect students in undergraduate programs and in non-research and professional master’s programs.

We spoke to President Deep Saini about the potential impact of these proposed changes, and about McGill’s position on the government’s plans.

Can you give us a sense of how these proposed changes would affect McGill?

In addition to the tuition changes that would impact Canadian students from outside the province, the government also announced plans to change the funding model regarding international students, with the government clawing back more money from those tuition fees. If implemented, these changes together will have profound and far-reaching consequences for McGill. These range from a drop in the number of students and important revenue losses, to devastating consequences for some faculties, and a suspension or re-evaluation of some major infrastructure projects.

Can you tell me more about how these changes would affect McGill’s student numbers and the University’s finances?

Such a dramatic increase in tuition rates will significantly reduce the number of Canadian students that we attract from outside Quebec. While we will step up recruitment efforts to fill these vacant spaces with students from other jurisdictions, we estimate that, in our best-case scenario, 20 per cent of those spaces will remain unfilled. In the worst case, the number could go as high as 80 per cent.

If you add in the losses expected from the claw back on international student tuition, McGill is looking at an annual revenue decline between $42 million and $94 million.

As troubling as the financial concerns are, I am also deeply worried about the implications that this could have for our students and for the type of experience they have at McGill.

Some McGill Faculties will lose most of their students from the rest of Canada. The consequences will be especially devastating for the Schulich School of Music. Almost 40 per cent of its undergraduate students are from the rest of Canada.

The Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, the Faculty of Education and the B.A. & Sc. interfaculty programs will also be severely affected by a loss of out-of-province students.

Given that a third of our student-athletes are from other parts of Canada, our varsity teams will also experience a major impact. We may have to suspend or cut some McGill Redbirds and Martlets teams.

Because of the financial uncertainty surrounding the new tuition policy, it could become necessary to implement some major cost-cutting measures, including a hiring freeze. We will do everything we can to avoid significant job reductions, but we may be forced to consider that possibility as well.

Could you elaborate on the implications these measures could have for the student experience?

The McGill student community is unique in Canada and its remarkable diversity is an absolute hallmark of what makes McGill such a special place. Our students come from Quebec, both anglophones and francophones. They come from across Canada, and they come from around the world. This is a university where a student from Trois-Rivières can share a classroom with students from Toronto, Tokyo, Turin, and Truro, Nova Scotia, and those interactions will help shape the way they all see the world.

The measures proposed by the government would almost certainly change the makeup of our student body and that presents a serious threat to the special culture we have developed and nurtured here.

The government has argued that the presence of out-of-province students, particularly in Montreal, contributes to the decline of French in this city. It has also stated that most of these students do not remain in Quebec once their studies have been completed – though we have not seen any data on that. McGill is sensitive to these concerns. In fact, just before the government announced these proposed changes, we were finalizing our own plans to launch an ambitious initiative that would have addressed them. I would like to talk more about that in a minute.

Do students from outside the province always stay in Quebec after finishing their degrees? No, but many of them have stayed and have built their lives here – joining the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal or an indie rock band, opening restaurants, launching businesses, contributing to the city’s flourishing AI and gaming sectors, and much more.

As for the students who do return to their home provinces, they bring with them a deeper appreciation of Quebec culture, a better understanding of Quebec society, and a strong affection for this city and province. Some of these alums go on to prominent positions in government, in business, in academe, and in other spheres. They have built a network of contacts here and those connections will pay dividends for them and for Quebec as well.

Let’s also not forget that out-of-province students, while they live here, contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to the Quebec economy each year.

You mentioned a McGill initiative that would address some of the government’s concerns about out-of-province students.

Before the government outlined its plans to change the tuition model, we were preparing to announce the creation of a Rayonnement du français initiative and we were going to make an initial commitment of $50 million over five years to launch it. There are many facets to it, but the idea at its core is to make it easier for our non-francophone students, as well as our faculty and staff, to become better integrated into Quebec society, both linguistically and culturally.

We plan to offer a greatly enhanced range of French programs for our community, as well as a series of initiatives that would give students further opportunities to experience immersion programs as well as internships in French with Quebec employers. The initiative would also create opportunities for stronger partnerships with our sister universities in Quebec.

Learning French is one of our best tools for encouraging the retention of people from elsewhere and I am living proof of that.

When I joined Université de Montréal in 1987, I didn’t speak French. A year and a half later, thanks to support from that institution, I was teaching plant biology to students, in French.

If I hadn’t had the opportunity to learn the language, I wouldn’t have stayed in Montreal for so long, and I probably wouldn’t have come back either. I would never have had the chance to raise my children in this city or to send them to a French-speaking school.

We attract tremendously talented people to McGill from different parts of Canada and from around the globe. We want to make it easier for these people to choose to remain in Quebec, to choose to contribute to Quebec.

It is unfortunate that the government’s recent announcement has complicated our ability to launch this initiative, given the financial uncertainty we are now contending with. That said, we are still committed to doing this further down the line.

How have discussions with the government gone so far?

Shortly after the proposed changes were first announced, I had a one-on-one meeting with the Minister of Higher Education, Pascale Déry, and I expressed my grave concerns about the potential impacts these changes would have on McGill and our sister universities.

More recently, Concordia University President Graham Carr, Bishop’s University Principal Sébastien Lebel-Grenier and I met with Premier François Legault and Minister Déry. We used the opportunity to present a joint proposal, one that, for our part, was closely connected to the aims of our Rayonnement du français initiative.

We asked the government to set aside its proposed changes to tuition and, instead, allow us to partner with them to promote the French language, and to build a more prosperous Quebec.

We would do this through a range of initiatives designed to help non-francophone students from outside Quebec integrate linguistically and culturally into the workforce and Quebec society.

While the government welcomed these ideas and our commitment to preserving and promoting French, we await further news about whether they will accept our proposal.

What happens next?

The conversation is not over. We will continue to demonstrate the negative effects these measures would have on McGill, on the higher education sector, and on the future of Quebec society. Discouraging talented people from coming to McGill and Quebec will not benefit the province and will undermine the kind of positive economic growth that the government seeks. We are determined to keep our doors open to students from across Canada and around the world.

I am heartened by the fact that we are not alone. In an op-ed in La Presse, the heads at Université de Montréal, Université Laval, Université de Sherbrooke, Polytechnique Montréal, and HEC Montréal, wrote that we must recognize how students from outside the province “contribute, like Quebec students, to the excellence, quality, diversity and relevance of our institutions.” I completely agree with that sentiment expressed by my colleagues.

McGill is a globally pre-eminent university that is locally anchored. This is a Quebec institution, first and foremost, that has made many important contributions to society, both at home and abroad. We are determined to continue to play that role, and we remain committed to working with the government to achieve our shared goals of protecting and promoting French while strengthening Quebec’s economy and social wellbeing.

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