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Quebec in the race for global talent

Speech delivered to CORIM
Prof. Heather Munroe-Blum
October 19, 2012 

The great historian Marcel Trudel liked to talk about the myths and realities of Quebec's history. On my side, I'll talk to you this afternoon about the myths and realities of the international role of Quebec’s universities—a  key role for the success of Quebec.

I’m going to do it in the form of questions and answers. And, because I’m a professor, I’m going to ask the questions and give the answers!

Myth or reality?  International students are a drain on Quebec.

Myth.  International students are essential contributors to Quebec’s success.  We cannot succeed without more well-educated, highly skilled, multilingual people.  People who have knowledge and experience of the major cultures of the world, people who are comfortable with managing complexity, and who are welcoming of change. 

International students are exactly what Quebec needs.  They spend years in our institutions, they speak or are motivated to learn French, they know Quebec’s values, and they are already integrating into our society.  Collectively, we Quebecers have supported a portion of their education with our taxes, and, collectively, we Quebecers benefit from the investment made elsewhere in their early training and from who they are today.

In 30 years, Quebec is expected to have one of the oldest populations in the world.  Quebecers need more health and social services, and more value-added jobs, and, if our population only grows at current rates, there will be even fewer people than today to hold down these jobs.  Who will pay taxes to support the system? 

Add to this crisis the fact that Quebec has the highest debt-to-GDP ratio of any Canadian province.1 Simply put, we have no more gas in the tank.  We cannot sustain our quality of life without change.  Quebec needs all the talented, educated people it can get.

International students are a source of talent and revenue for Quebec.  In Canada, for example, these students have an economic impact of $8 billion.2

Myth or reality?  International students are trained at our expense, and then leave.

That’s another myth.  The Conférence régionale des élus de Montreal estimates that one third of international students stay in Quebec after graduation.  This proportion has been growing since Quebec started awarding Selection Certificates to international students who apply to immigrate after graduation.

Half of McGill’s alumni live in Quebec, including many one-time international students who fell in love with Quebec and never left.  A good example is Aldo Bensadoun, who perhaps you saw on “Tout le Monde en Parle.”  He’s the founder of the Aldo Group.

Aldo was raised in Morocco and France, before heading to the U.S.  He was attracted to McGill.  And after graduation from McGill, he stayed in Quebec and from here, created an extraordinary Quebec multinational shoe company that today has a thousand stores in sixty-six countries around the world.  And thousands of employees here in Quebec.  You might say it’s the Cirque de Soleil of shoes!

Myth or reality?  Higher tuition rates would drive talented Quebec and international students away from our universities.

A deep myth.  Studies across the country are crystal-clear: no link exists between the amount of tuition and attendance in universities.  If low tuition created better access, Quebec would lead the country in the percentage of young people receiving a university degree.  It does not.  It is now amongst the lowest in Canada, behind Nova Scotia (#1) and Ontario (#2), the provinces with the highest tuition, though still reasonable.   

What matters is having both the quality and reputation of our universities, and the availability of effective student support for those in need.  Quality is what international students are seeking; it is also what Quebecers need.  Nobody wants to go to school for a poor quality of education, even if it costs nothing.

Here’s a concrete example of this dynamic: Since tuition was substantially raised in McGill’s MBA program, in order to provide the highest quality education and professional training, we have doubled the number of Quebec students starting in the program.  And many of the best-prepared Quebecers, who previously left Quebec to get an MBA, are now studying here. 

Why?  Because we now have a guarantee of quality, and of financial aid for students who need it; Thanks to increased tuition, we were able to put in place one of the most generous financial aid programs for MBAs in North America.

Myth or reality?  McGill doesn’t do anything to keep its graduates in Quebec.

False!  McGill is taking serious measures to prevent this from happening.  When I began my first term as principal, many of our Medicine graduates were leaving Quebec to set up medical practices elsewhere.

We took the bull by the horns, and today I’m proud to tell you that 90 per cent of our medical students are from Quebec, and 75% stay to practice medicine in Quebec after graduation.

Of course, talented and educated people have a lot of opportunities.  They’re mobile. The upside?  You can take the graduate out of Quebec, but you can never take the Quebec out of the graduate! 

They’re still assets for Quebec. Not convinced? I’ll give you an example: Five years ago, we launched a major fundraising campaign.  Without that kind of initiative, McGill would not be able to fulfill its research and teaching mission.

I’m proud to announce that half the money we’ve raised is coming from McGill graduates who live outside of Quebec. 

That’s hundreds of millions of dollars being directly injected into our economy. And if they weren’t confident in our good management, all those people wouldn’t be giving a cent to McGill.

Myth or reality?  McGill doesn’t need Quebec.

Another myth.  Without Quebec, McGill would not be McGill, just as Quebec would not be what it is without McGill.

Quebec’s culture and values are in McGill’s DNA.

McGill is proud to be a Quebec institution and also proud of its reputation on the world stage.  For example, we have launched a large project in Montreal: the Quartier de l’Innovation.  In partnership with ÉTS, the three levels of government, and the neighborhood’s residents, we will build, south of downtown, the urban neighborhood of the future: an ecosystem of cultural and social innovation, a place for training and research, an economic and technological hub.

Impact Group ranked McGill and ÉTS on its list of the Top Five Most Innovative Universities in Canada.  We’re putting this expertise to work for Montreal and Quebec.

McGill experts contribute to every aspect of Quebec life, just as they contribute to every Quebec and Canadian economic mission.  Earlier this year, Yves Beauchamp and I joined Canada’s Governor-General David Johnston, a former Principal of McGill, and 28 other university leaders in Canada’s largest ever higher education mission.  This visit to Brazil resulted in McGill signing four new agreements in joint research and student-mobility with four Brazilian universities—adding to the 50 Brazilian collaborations that we already have in place—and Mister Beauchamp signed agreements worth $1 million.  

Who benefits from this?  Quebec and our students.

Unfortunately, in contrast to the only news from this trip that journalists reported back in Quebec, there wasn’t time to hit the sun and sands on the beach of the Copacabana—although I surely need the suntan.  To be clear, this travel more than paid for itself.

Myth or reality? McGill attracts international students to enrich McGill via their tuition.

100% false.  We attract international students because they add to the cultural and intellectual enrichment of our learning community. 

Further, under the Quebec funding system, most of the tuition paid by students from outside Quebec returns to the Government.  With a few exceptions, McGill keeps only a small portion of the fees these students pay to support them in their studies.

Because of this, each year McGill gives back around $55 million of its students’ fees—net—that the Government then redistributes across the rest of the Quebec university system.  $55 million.  Year after year.   

To add to this disincentive, students from outside of Quebec are required to contribute to the Quebec student aid program, but they are ineligible to receive this aid, notwithstanding the special service needs they often have.  This is an inequity.

Universities and the students they welcome are being deprived of significant resources that should be returned to them.  That’s not an invitation for them to do more.

Quebec is competing for global talent from Brazil, India, China and elsewhere against regions around the globe.  Australia, New Zealand and the US each spend more than $10 million annually on international marketing for education.  Canada spends only $1 million.

Countries around the world are also dramatically increasing investments in research universities and graduate education.

The federal government recently commissioned a report from the Advisory Panel on Canada’s International Education Strategy, on which Monsieur André Bisson—former chancellor of Université de Montreal—and Madame Jacynthe Côté both served.  

The report calls for Canada to double the number of full-time international students it recruits, from 239,000 to more than 470,000 in the next decade. 

How many new students today know about and consider Quebec as the best place to study?  How many will come to our universities?  How many will stay after graduation?

Quebec’s share of Canada’s international student population has decreased from 33 percent in 2001, to 25 percent in 2010.  In contrast, British Columbia increased from 10 percent of all international students in Canada to nearly 20 percent. 

Quebec needs a strategy.  A clear strategy for making Quebec a global education and research destination, or we will fall even further behind. 

Some argue that low tuition will attract talent but, as we saw with our MBA program, low tuition does not lead to quality, and quality is precisely what international students are looking for, and what Quebec students need.

Students travel for an educational experience they cannot receive at home.  We face an international race for talent, and, Quebecers are not winning with education as a “bargain-basement” proposition. 

We can only win with incentives for universities to attract, support and retain top talent with quality and accessibility.

Here are my three recommendations to get there:

Number 3: We need the means to increase the number of French language courses offered on our campuses, at least for graduate students.

Number 2: Quebec must increase its share of international students, to at least its previous share of 33 per cent.

We must do this for our regions and for Montreal.  Montreal can become North America’s top university city. 

For this, we require a policy that encourages universities to recruit internationally. The money paid by international students should stay with the universities where they’re studying.

This would be an incentive for Quebec universities to leave a presence on the world stage and to compete with the world’s best.

Make no mistake: Students around the world are dreaming about Canada.  If Quebec doesn’t attract them, other provinces will.

Number 1: Forward-thinking societies create an environment that encourages entrepreneurship, productivity and innovation.

Quebec’s universities are drivers of first-rate economic innovation—yet they’re dramatically under-financed in comparison to their competitors in the rest of Canada, to the tune of $620-million, according to the latest figures from CREPUQ, which have been validated by CIRANO.

Without healthy universities, innovation is impossible. Quebec must remember this when it creates its social and fiscal policies.

This is important, as Quebec prepares for a Summit on Higher Education and a new national policy on research and innovation.

During the last campaign, our premier—and the first woman premier, which I’m pretty proud of—said that we must meet in the middle so that “our institutions rank among the best in the world, and that all Quebecers can access them, regardless of their economic standing.”

This sounds very promising for the upcoming Summit.

To get there, the Quebec government should therefore add the quality of programs, the search for excellence and international recruitment to the Summit’s agenda.

Nothing else is more important for guaranteeing the success of Quebec. In other words, if our performance in recruitment, innovation and productivity stays the same, Quebec will no longer be in the competition.

Quebec is a beautiful place and it should be celebrated worldwide.  It is positioned to win the race for global talent if we move quickly, competitively and with confidence.

Myth or reality?

  1. Quebec is a prime international education destination.
  2. Quebec is where Quebecers want to study, work after graduation and raise their families.
  3. Quebec is known for the quality of its universities.
  4. Quebec is a prosperous nation, caring and also wise.

Do we want these statements to be myths or realities? 

It’s up to us to decide.

Let’s just do it.

Thank you.


1 http://www.conferenceboard.ca/topics/economics/budgets/Québec-2012-budget-en.aspx.
2 Report of the Advisory Panel on Canada’s International Education Strategy.