University funding: Finding the courage to act!

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Added on 29 September 2010 in Viewpoints

Text signed by Michel Leblanc, President and CEO of the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal, and published in Le Devoir and the Métro.

September 29, 2010 

University funding: Finding the courage to act!

Our economic future is at risk if we don’t offer more support to our universities and institutions of higher learning. It’s time to act.

We know our universities are declining. They are having a hard time attracting new world-class professors, maintaining infrastructure and acquiring advanced equipment. They are working themselves to the bone to finance research initiatives, which are essential to knowledge development and teaching.

If our universities can no longer compete, how can we expect tomorrow’s workers, businesses and economy to?

Let’s look at the facts
We have made a sensible, ambitious collective choice: to move toward a knowledge economy and support the development of high-value-added segments within so-called traditional sectors.

A careful decision is required given the emergence of new competitors with a low-cost structure and the demographical challenges we are facing in Quebec.  

But this choice requires that we increase our productivity and succeed in high-value-added niches. To accomplish this, we need stronger universities.   

It’s time to call a spade a spade: the solution for funding universities does not lie in higher personal or corporate taxes. It does not lie in increasing public funding, given that the Quebec government invests proportionally more than other governments and that we are entering a much-needed phase of restricted public spending.

The solution lies in valuing university degrees and a well orchestrated removal of tuition ceilings.

Let’s find the courage to act!
Quebec is far and away the Canadian province where tuition fees are the lowest and where universities are the most poorly funded. Paradoxically, or rather as a result, we have a markedly lower rate of university graduation than other places. In Montréal, the graduation rate was 26.5%, which is significantly lower than the 40% found in many other major North American cities, where tuition fees are much higher.

The solution is three-pronged
First, we need to preserve the Quebec model by which the government provides most of the funding to universities, but we need to accept a reasonable increase in tuition fees for all programs. Pegging tuition fees to the Canadian average would in and of itself generate around $500 million in revenue, or most of the structural deficit in our university network.

Second, given that graduates have a higher employment rate and compensation than the rest of the population, a university degree should be considered an investment rather than an expense. And because certain programs lead to more lucrative careers, it’s logical that this should be reflected in tuition fees.

Third, university is a powerful lever for social mobility and must remain so. Of course the counterbalance to this increase in fees is a guarantee that accessibility be maintained. There are proven ways to remove the ceiling without hampering access to a university education. Let’s use them!

An opportunity not to be missed
The Government of Quebec has just announced a meeting with education partners this fall. The government and education partners must take advantage of the window opened by the budget to create real reforms.

If we are serious about creating a competitive economy, an outstanding university network is indispensible.