Time to choose academic excellence

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Added on 2 May 2012 in Viewpoints

 

Time to choose academic excellence

This document is co-signed by:

Mr. Michel Audet, former Finance Minister of Quebec; Ms. Françoise Bertrand, President and CEO of the Fédération des chambres de commerce du Québec; Me Lucien Bouchard, former Premier of Quebec; Mr. Marcel Boyer, Professor Emeritus at Université de Montréal; Mr. Yves-Thomas Dorval, President of the Quebec Employers’ Council; Mr. Joseph Facal, former President of the Treasury Board; Mr. Pierre Fortin, Professor Emeritus at Université du Québec à Montréal; Mr. Michel Gervais, former Rector of Université Laval; Ms. Monique Jérôme-Forget, former Finance Minister of Quebec and former President of the Treasury Board; Mr. Robert Lacroix, former Rector of Université de Montréal; Mr. Michel Leblanc, President and CEO of the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal; and Mr. Claude Montmarquette, Professor Emeritus at Université de Montréal.

The Quebec society is faced with a somewhat simple choice that yet seems difficult to accept for some – should we increase the funding of our universities by asking students to pay for a reasonable part of what their education costs?

For a vast majority of Quebecers and for two thirds of the student population, the answer is yes.

Popular wisdom grants that a distinct society recognized as a very small minority in North America can only develop if it has access to highly qualified labour with skills rooted in a first-rate education. Quebecers have understood that we must strike a balance between the contributions of all taxpayers and those required from the students.

But, mostly, a large majority of Quebecers are acknowledging the necessity of better funding our universities while implementing a system optimally calibrated to ensure accessibility to graduate studies.

And that is the key message that we should all keep in mind.

It is in fact the proposition we brought forward in February 2010, when we united our voices in signing a pact calling for better university funding. We were basing this proposal on four fundamental principles: accessibility, fairness, excellence and efficiency.

In order to better align tuition fees with the Canadian average at the time, we suggested an increase of $1,000 a year over three years. We felt that such a raise in tuition fees was necessary to make up for the gap created by the freeze of the previous years.

We also believed that this increased student participation had to be supported by an official commitment from the government to not decrease its funding, to significantly improve the loans and bursaries system, and to implement a revenue-proportional loan repayment program.  

We were also asking for a prorating of tuition fees according to the university chosen, educational level and discipline, in order to better account for the education costs and variable individual performances of the educational investments, which would provide for cutting down tuition fees in some disciplines and adding to them in others.

In its 2011 budget, the government announced a yearly increment of $325 over five years. Then, in light of the responses from student associations these past weeks, officials made a number of concessions, the latest being an extension of the span of the increase to seven years, which translates into an annual $254 rise over that period of time. As eloquently demonstrated by tax expert Luc Godbout, it has also substantially enhanced the loans and bursaries system, therefore responding to accessibility concerns. 

Let us not forget that, in its 2010 budget, the Quebec government also decided to boost its own spending toward higher education and has asked the private sector to pay additional taxes to absorb the recurrent yearly deficit of universities, which was around $600 million in 2010.

In short, everyone was called upon to put their shoulder to the wheel. Now, it is time for students to pitch in as well.

Upon the pact’s signature, we wrote, “The situation demands that we collectively come to an agreement.” The time has come for such an agreement.

Everyone will have understood that student contestation has long moved beyond the matter of a simple increase in tuition fees. The extent of the disruptions that are currently forced on the Quebec society far exceeds the scope of the government’s decision.

It is more than time that we react – we must reinstate order, the students have to return to class, and all efforts must be made to save a semester already terribly jeopardized. This is a situation when, regardless of political allegiances, the population must support the state, which is ultimately responsible for public order, the safety of individuals and the integrity of our institutions.

In any case, eventual elections will provide citizens with the opportunity to have their say in regard to the current debate and to decide the responsibilities of everyone involved. That is how democratic societies solve their conflicts and make their decisions – at the polls instead of on the streets.

Will some students rise to remind both their peers and the political leaders of tomorrow among them of this? Besides, shouldn’t we expect them to learn the inner workings of democracy by first accepting their responsibility as a citizen to denounce the partisans of civil disobedience?