Draft Discussion Document on Quebec Universities

Written by  //  May 23, 2013  //  Education  //  1 Comment

Convocation06.jpg Among adults aged 55 to 64, Canada ranks fourth in the OECD, but by 2010, university attainment rates for the 25 to 34 age cohort put Canada 15th among OECD countries, writes Paul Davidson.
Photograph by: Lyle Stafford , National Post

Canada’s universities have been doing more with less… but can they keep doing so?

(Ottawa Citizen) In the last dozen years, Canadian universities have made space for a 50 percent increase in full-time enrolment, bringing the number of students served each year in credit programs to more than 1.2 million. Why the increase? Because the labour market has demanded it; because, as a country, we need the continued advantage of a well-educated population.
But consider this. While universities have opened their doors wider, ensuring greater opportunities for more people, per student funding has dropped to a historic low. Clearly, universities are doing so much more today with a lot less.
Universities have repurposed space, converting physical infrastructure to meet needs, whether that has meant turning classrooms into labs or offices into teaching spaces
No one will argue the effects of the new economy. The resulting challenges for many sectors have been substantial. Always institutions of ideas, universities have stepped up, perhaps earlier than some, with creative and innovative responses. (23 May 2013)

John Drysdale & Susan Hoecker-Drysdale

Public universities in Québec today are caught between the Scylla of threatened reductions of government funding and the Charybdis of student demands for free or reduced tuition. On the one hand, with budget deficits running to unsustainably high levels, the government, and behind it, the taxpayers, press universities to control, if not reduce, their spending. From the other side, students press for control, if not reduction or elimination, of the costs of their higher education. While revenues from tuition amount to less than twenty percent of university funding, the level of government funding is itself tied to student enrollments (hence tuition revenue; the more students, the more government funding).

Universities are inherently expensive establishments. In addition to standard classrooms and offices, there are several kinds of library spaces, laboratories, and studios, all of which use costly, cutting-edge technologies. Simply maintaining their facilities and keeping their technologies up to date requires continuously increasing budgetary support. Given that universities, unlike factories or private corporations, do not generate revenues from their mandated operations, they are dependent on external funding and investment. And if the level of funding fails to keep up with advancing operational requirements, then universities suffer declines in their effectiveness as engines of innovation and knowledge-generation. If universities, in turn, fall behind in a competitive national and global environment, then the society, not just the economy, suffers.

Few people doubt the benefits of free public education from kindergarten through the university level. For societies that can afford the investment of resources, fully subsidized education serves to indicate the value a society places on educational achievement. As desirable as free public higher education is, the question for any particular society becomes: are taxpayers able, and if able, willing, to subsidize the entire costs of student tuition and fees? The following proposals are premised on the assumption that the majority of citizens and taxpayers of Québec are not prepared, at least not at this time of high government budget deficits and economic uncertainty, to commit the resources necessary to provide completely tuition-free university education. At the same time, the object in the following is to identify ways of minimizing the financial burden on students while securing the resources needed for strengthening our universities. This is a matter of attempting to navigate the troubled waters between Scylla and Charybdis – no mean feat.

The proposals outlined below are meant to address some of the most pressing needs of Québec universities today:

i. The need to control, possibly reduce, the amount of Québec government expenditure on university education in the near term (in view of the governmental deficit situation);
ii. The need to maintain, possibly increase, the amount of university funding for research and instruction in Québec universities; and
iii. The need to maintain, possibly increase, financial support for students on the basis of both merit and need, in order to maintain both quality and accessibility to university education.

The primary responsibility of the government now as in the past is to provide adequate financial support for the core operational functions of the university: research, teaching, and learning. What is newly required, at least for the near term, is to shift away from undertaking new capital projects (i.e., construction of new buildings) in order to increase support for these core functions.

While tuition revenues need to be increased substantially to contribute to the cost of educating students, the increases also need to be offset as much as possible by greater support for student scholarships and bursaries (see “Challenge to the Private Sector below). The net effects of these changes should be to provide substantial overall increases in revenues from tuition and yet reduce the financial burden on students who qualify on the basis of either merit or financial need (or both) for scholarships and bursaries. Those students who do not qualify for scholarships or bursaries would pay a higher portion of the cost of their own education.
By way of illustration, if the nominal* rate of tuition were to be increased by approximately 20% per year, the current $2,168 per full-time student would increase to $5,395 after five years, resulting in tuition costs still well below the rest of Canada.
*Paid only by students who do not qualify for scholarships or bursaries.

Universities already charge differential tuition on the basis of residence (in- versus out-of-province versus international) and sometimes on the basis of level of program (graduate or professional versus undergraduate). It is now time to implement differential tuition based on the differential cost of education according to the major fields of study. Fields that require significantly more resources for such things as laboratories, custom technologies, and data usages would justify higher fees than the baseline needs of most humanities disciplines.

One of the most innovative forms of instruction today is online education. Online courses can reduce costs substantially for both the universities that offer them and for the students who take them. So-called MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, sponsored by respected universities, have mushroomed in the past couple of years. While online education is not new to Québec universities, much greater use can be made of such media.

While corporate and individual donors have played a beneficial role in supporting capital projects, the greater need now is for donors to shift their resources from subsidizing new buildings to underwriting more scholarships and bursaries. Instead of named buildings let us have named scholarships. Potential employers can contribute more to bursaries, internships, and work-study programs.

Taken together these measures can strengthen our universities while easing the financial burdens on government, taxpayers, and students.

26 February
Canada must streamline education to turn degrees into jobs
By Denise Deveau, Financial Post
Everyone has heard the argument that education begets fortune and career success. But there are countless graduates who have invested tens of thousands of dollars in a university education, only to find themselves starting on a career path that barely covers their loan payments, or lining up with hundreds of other similarly qualified hopefuls for a job.
While university graduates in jobs in which their skills are barely put to the test might seem common, this is not a universal conundrum by any means. Certain degrees — especially in technology, sciences and engineering — are almost sure-fire entries to a lucrative career. …
The Scandinavian countries, Germany, Switzerland and Australia have produced much better employment outcomes. Ironically, these are also regions where the number of students graduating with university degrees is far lower (typically 20% to 30% depending on the country).
The strength of their education systems lies in the fact that the role of employers is infused in the educational process so career pathways are explicitly apparent, says [Donnalee Bell, senior consultant with the Canadian Career Development Foundation].
To that end, they are very much involved in training and curriculum development. “The focus is on a more direct link to the labour market, so it’s not so heavily weighted on the university system. …
Canada needs to start having discussions around career education and what that means in this economic environment, Ms. Bell contends. “We should be helping students connect the pieces to hone their skills and building networks that will parlay them into where to take the next step.
“Universities and colleges need to think about how what they’re providing translates into the labour market. And business needs to tell us what skills they need, because we don’t know.”

Garneau Proposes Major Overhaul of Student Assistance Program
Under Garneau’s proposed plan, the current six-month “grace period” of non-payment of a student loan would be abolished and instead made into an indefinite time period. No student would be forced to make payments to their student loan until they found a well paying job.
Garneau said an income threshold of about $40,000 would be instituted. Only once the student has found gainful employment and reached that salary level would repayment begin.
He added that since education is a provincial responsibility, provinces would have the option to opt out of this plan and the federal government would continue to support them.


We should all be grateful to John Drysdale for his work. He assumes that 1. University Education is inherently desirable to the community, 2. The financing of universities should be divided between taxpayers and students, and the non-negligible detail is the division of the burden between, as well as among those groups. 3. The provincial government is seriously interested in seeking a permanent solution to 2.
I have serious doubts, having dealt through the years only with the students who passed the relatively tight admission filter at McGill, that not all who are now at university should be there. If we had serious apprenticeship programmes delivering basic craft skills (carpenter, electrician, plumber etc), not just job-specific skills of value only in the establishment of a particular employer, more people could find, earlier in life, ways to support themselves and their families. If the general educational policy were not designed around promoting the ignorance of the English language, the graduates could fill jobs across Canada, rather than swell the ranks of the unemployed in Quebec. (South Korea, the current pioneer in mass education, promotes the teaching of English as widely as possible. This is not done in the expectation that all young Koreans will emigrate, but in recognition of the fact, denied officially in Quebec, that unavoidably English is the language of science and of business for the foreseeable future.)
Who pays how much, by the way of fees has long been a way of obtaining electoral cannon-fodder in Quebec. A statistical fact is that university graduates, as a group, have higher incomes than the general citizenry. Taxing the latter to subsidize the former, is Robin Hood in reverse.
I can see a very strong case for properly delivered early childhood, primary and secondary education being publicly financed. This implies far more than cheap baby-sitting for middle-class parents. Quantitative skills and languages come very easily to young children. Government spending not strongly committed to these goals is a waste of public money.
It is easy to write down these things, and to submit them to decision makers who are more-or-less aware of these matters. Unfortunately, these decision makers are also aware that their electoral self-interest is tied to promoting linguistic ignorance, the promise of many university diplomas down the road, and pleasing unions committed to the status quo, who finance the electoral campaigns of the very same decision makers.
Tony Deutsch

I think the paper frames the issue as most reasonable people see it. I’m not sure that it tackles the fundamental questions, although it flags some of them. See what you think of these points:-
1. Publicly funded universities are accountable to taxpayers for how they spend the money. Governments so far leave them more or less on their own about what to do with the money they receive, some of it through competition with each other for enrollment.
2. The results have not been altogether encouraging. Universities have blown millions on sketchy land deals –perhaps with some government encouragement–but have not answered the obvious question: “What were they thinking?” and is the money recoverable?
3. The definition of “adequate funding” cannot be left to universities alone to define. Taxpayers’ money is spent on the basis of political decisions. There are political as well as economic limits to the communities’ ability to meet university demands given the needs of others and the public interest as a whole.
4. To be fair, universities have not faced much in the way of measurable operational requirements imposed by their funders. That is probably a mistake, but the political task of generating a consensus may be beyond the capacity of the political system to deliver.
5. Another observation is that the “neo-liberal” vision of a university as the generator of economic surplus is not defensible in any meaningful accounting sense, outside perhaps the professional schools (management, engineering, law, medicine). The big problem is gestation time. What dollar value would one put on Plato’s Academy or Bell Labs? Obviously not enough. But neither actually made much money directly from its spectacular intellectual contributions. Notably, it is mainly the arts faculties rather than the professional schools and the u/g programmes that feed them who are concerned about this. Policy makers seem to have forgotten about it.
6. Bottom line (so to speak)? Quebec is at the leading edge of a set of choices all provinces in Canada and indeed governments in the North Atlantic economies have to face. Their economies do not generate enough surplus to cover the bills going forward, given the rising demand and current state of organization and technology deployment. Some people (like me) argue that innovative approaches can increase productivity and close the gap, but that requires commitment to change and the attainment of concrete goals that is as yet nowhere to be found within the system–outside the Scandinavian countries and perhaps Switzerland. Of these, the Scans share a number of common features that are absent in most other countries: a relatively homogenous population, a tradition of community solidarity in the face of adversity, obligatory national service, a mortal enemy that either occupied them or seriously threatened occupation within the memory of people now living.Switzerland shares most of these as well. It still took an economic shock of existential proportions to stimulate change.
7. “History shows” (as they say) that not all places have to succeed. Generally, it boils down to a leadership that can articulate the problem clearly while stimulating the will and determination to succeed. A strong sense of unity helps.
8. If the above is true, what are our odds?
Guy Stanley
I don`t really know if you want my biased opinion or not, but my own studies in Hospital Administration were subsidized by our provincial government, as I recall, to the tune of $5,000 a year, in the hope of having it returned through more efficient management in health care establishments. Of course, we were a class of nine students, so the generosity was limited. I don`t know whether or not Québec`s objective was attained, but I do believe that free education in some disciplines represents an investment rather than expenditure. I do NOT favour subsidies for students (other than the normal funding of universities by government) in disciplines which have no, or little possibility of serving objectives other than permitting the graduate to add a few extra letters to his family name. As a general rule, I believe that an educated population in almost any discipline is desirable but see nothing wrong in sharing costs within the ability of the student (and/or his or her parents) to bear the cost. In other words, education is always an asset and should therefore be subsidized by government to the extent that the province (and or country) is enriched by the student`s acquired knowledge. On rereading what I have just written, this appears to be the present state of affairs.
Herb Bercovitz

One Comment on "Draft Discussion Document on Quebec Universities"

  1. Susan Hoecker-Drysdale March 20, 2013 at 6:41 pm ·

    Re PBS Newshour Graying Workforce Holding On to Coveted Positions
    Here are a few reflections on the Newshour discussion. This is a large, complicated, and very timely issue with many implications for society beyond academe. However, it is the central issue at present concerning the stature, roles and responsibilities of academe within the total framework of society. At present we know there are increasing issues of tuition levels, university enrolments, lack of jobs for recent PhDs, and research and university funding. Related concerns include professional rewards and professional responsibilities, esteem and professional pride, freedom of thought and research, expectations for, and the structure of, academic life, and the context and content of relations among academic generations.
    If one takes on the life of an academic scholar, one is hardly interested in exiting at an arbitrary age. One wants to continue intellectual pursuits and one’s research interests and all that involves academics. One may wish also to continue teaching and sharing one’s knowledge with students and colleagues. There may be some cases in which academics retire and discard all previous interests and research activities. We all know instances of both orientations. The larger question at hand is: what are the implications of these personal desires for academic institutions as a whole and for the coming generations of young academics?
    These complex situations raise matters of responsibility: the responsibility of academic professionals, of academic institutions, of governments that provide the funding, and of society at large. Few adequate agreements or structures exist to address these issues. There are no adequate means to provide for the continuance of older professors in redefined roles that then make room for younger scholars. There is little, if any, provision for older scholars to give seminars, train graduate students, lecture or talk informally to undergraduates, nurture young professors, participate in the academic (not administrative) life of departments and of academic institutions at large, to take on visiting professorships or research fellowships in other institutions and countries, or even to hold tutorials. The cry will be that governments and universities do not have the funds for such activities. But older scholars with 30 to 40 years in academe need not be paid full salaries nor any longer hold tenure. There is a glaring absence of creative ideas, such as university think tanks, research institutes, centres of scholarship and community outreach programs where retired professors could continue their work while forming an academic community that would also serve the wider (nonacademic) society.
    The heart of the matter may be that academics (scholars, scientists, classicists, etc.) and academic life in general (even education in general) are not highly enough valued by society to take seriously, and provide for, any continuity of the scholarship, research, and the cultivation of intellectual pursuits as vital societal activities. The issues raise much larger questions and concerns about society’s priorities, values, goals, and ethics. At the same time the question must be raised as to whether for some, or for many, academic employment has become a sinecure. Tenure has insured the existence of academic freedom and usually of one’s choice of retirement date, but it may now have become a ticket to guarantied life-long financial rewards under unquestioned circumstances. Does it also indicate that academics, like politicians, pursue and hold on to their positions for financial and self-serving rewards rather than service to the academic community including its oncoming members, to the social order and to its intellectual and scientific culture? The lingering of old blood in mainstream academic positions may foretell the ultimate shriveling of clientele (students), funding (research and university budgets) and society’s respect for academe and its “products”. Susan Hoecker-Drysdale

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