$850 million. Each year. That's the amount Quebec universities are underfunded compared to the average of the rest of Canada, according to a study [French only] by the Conference of Rectors and Principals of Quebec Universities (CREPUQ).
Suspicious because CREPUQ's member universities have a clear stake in this issue? Studies by organizations with no stake in Quebec university financing show similar results:
- The Council of Ontario Universities (COU) ranked Quebec's universities last in Canada in the two main sources of operating funding (provincial grant plus tuition).
- Maclean's found that Quebec’s four medical-doctoral universities are in Canada's bottom five for operating funding per student.
A consensus on underfunding—until last year…
What’s more, everyone seemed to agree that Quebec universities were critically underfunded—until the previous government planned to raise tuition:
« Il y a un constat clair qui a été fait: les universités sont sous-financées, et le gouvernement doit leur donner plus de ressources. Ce constat a fait l'unanimité chez les membres de la Commission de l'éducation, autant du côté du Parti québécois que du Parti libéral. »1
—Pauline Marois, 2005.
« La FEUQ considère que les universités québécoises sont sous-financées de manière inquiétante, et que ce sous-financement, conséquence directe de compressions budgétaires, a des impacts directs sur la réalisation de la mission universitaire. »2
—Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ), 2010
- Less than our share: McGill has 16% of Quebec’s students (weighted) but only receives 15% of the operating funds from the Quebec government. If operating funds were allocated according to share of weighted students, McGill would receive an additional $26 million per year.
- “Special mission” funding: McGill is one of only two Quebec universities that doesn’t receive “special mission” funding. McGill has several exceptional missions that benefit the community, such as the preservation of historic buildings. A special mission status could result in $15 million of funding per year.
- The “Ajustement McGill”: In 2000, the Government decided to reduce McGill’s grant (and only McGill’s grant) by about $10 million per year—money that was never repaid.
- An accumulated deficit of $275 million in 2012-13: That includes pension liabilities (more than $100 million), vacation owed to staff and cash debt. We’ve been working hard to balance our books without affecting our performance, but years of underfunding make this a huge challenge. What’s more, the Quebec Government retroactively cut McGill’s funding by $19 million in December. Next year may bring even larger cuts.
There are many hidden effects of underfunding, and they’re making themselves felt at Quebec universities:
- Climbing deficits
To keep education strong, Quebec universities now have $2.14 billion in accumulated deficit (GAAP). With a $850 million funding gap each year, our universities are borrowing money to cover shortfalls. The alternative—taking the money out of budgets for teaching and student support—may soon become unavoidable.
- Infrastructure in need of repairs
Quebec’s university buildings have seen better days. In 2007, Quebec universities had accumulated $1.5 billion in deferred maintenance. Year after year, a lack of funds postpones necessary infrastructure work—delays that pose health and safety risks, complicate the installation of high-tech equipment and make it harder to adapt to new educational technologies. At McGill in particular, our high number of historic buildings makes maintenance and renovation exceptionally difficult.
- Research competitiveness is slipping
Compared to other provinces, Quebec’s share of federal research funding has been declining—between 2003-04 and 2008-09 it dropped from 30.5% to 25.4%. Ontario and British Columbia, on the other hand, have been making gains. As well, applications for large research grants have become more complicated, and increased funding would allow us to hire the support staff that we need to succeed. Quebec still performs relatively well in research funding, but our declining competitiveness undermines Quebec’s place in an innovation-driven world economy.
For several reasons, we don’t think this tells the whole story:
- Cost of living calculations measure the cost of selected goods and services in a given area, to give an idea of how much it costs to live—not the cost of running a university. For example, Canada's Consumer Price Index considers the cost of things like tobacco, clothing and footwear that are irrelevant to universities.
- Quebec’s residents pay more income tax than workers in any other province in Canada.3 When we compete for top-notch professors and other employees, Quebec’s lower cost of living is not as attractive a draw as the significantly higher take-home pay offered elsewhere.
- Many of our purchases—like library holdings and specialized high-tech equipment—are created outside of Quebec, so their price is not affected by our local cost of living.
- And while cost of living may be significantly lower than average in Quebec’s regions, it is not in Montreal.
1. Journal des débats de l’Assemblée nationale, 15 juin 2005
2. Les frais de scolarité et l’université : Argumentaire contre les hausses des frais de scolarité, 2010, p. iii