Les universités à un moment décisif

Address to the Canadian Club of Montreal/Discours devant le Cercle Canadien de Montréal

Prof. Heather Munroe-Blum
Principal and Vice-Chancellor / Principale et vice-chancelière
McGill University / Université McGill


March 8, 2004 / le 8 mars 2004


Je suis honorée de l'invitation que me fait le Cercle canadien de Montréal, une organisation qui jouit d'une longue et distinguée réputation en tant que promoteur de débats importants.

Je suis particulièrement heureuse d'être ici en cette journée internationale de la femme.

Today we celebrate the many accomplishments and contributions of women, and, in this way we celebrate all people, talented men and women, who are committed to a better, more open society that is free of barriers to equal opportunity.

Who couldn't help but be ecstatic at our representation at the Academy Awards - the nomination of the Triplettes de Belleville and the stunning moment where Denise Robert and Denys Arcand shared the stage on international television as they received their much-deserved OSCAR for Les Invasions Barbares? Such creativity and talent reflect the essence of Quebec.

Aujourd'hui, j'aimerais vous parler du talent et du savoir qui marquent nos universités et notre ville. Au cours des trente dernières années, les leaders du Québec ont investi de manière stratégique et judicieuse dans les universités.

Et les résultats sont impressionnants.

Le Québec a bâti un excellent réseau universitaire. Très bien représenté ici aujourd'hui.

Les universités constituent une source essentielle :

  • De croissance et de création d'emploies - and these are value added jobs;
  • De talent;
  • D'enseignement et de savoir;
  • D'investissement;
  • De valeurs civiles;
  • D'idées novatrices.

McGill constitue toujours un trésor québécois unique, reconnu mondialement pour son excellence.

Mais, comme toutes les universités Québécoises, McGill a des besoins financiers urgents.

La tenue par le gouvernement du Québec de la Commission sur la qualité, l'accessibilité et le financement des universités est louable. Les commissaires ont entendu plusieurs points de vue.

Mais une chose est certaine.

Nous visons tous les mêmes résultats :

  • Un réseau universitaire accessible, de haute qualité et qui offre des choix et des programmes variés.
  • Un système au sein duquel nos universités sont en mesure de s'accomplir au maximum.

We all want universities that are equipped to perform at the highest level. Look around the world. Great cities and great universities always go hand in hand.

McGill and Montreal have been achieving great things together for more than 180 years. This year McGill is distinguished as Canada's Research University of the Year, and ranked number two in the Maclean's ratings of medical-doctoral universities.

We have a strong tradition and culture of research and teaching excellence and world firsts:

  • Ernest Rutherford, the first Quebec professor to win a Nobel prize,
  • Wilder Penfield who mapped the human brain,
  • William Osler, a pioneer in medical education.

And the tradition continues with brilliant scholars like:

  • Paul-André Crépeau, who led the reform of Quebec's Civil Code and the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms;
  • Vicky Kaspi, astrophysicist, and a leading member of the nouvelle vague of McGill researchers;
  • Brenda Milner, neurologist, whose groundbreaking work has set the basis for our understanding of how memory works.

Our researchers push out the frontiers of knowledge, in areas ranging from genomics to nanotechnology, to music, religious studies and architecture. They attract talent, attention and investment from around the world into Quebec. And they are making a permanent mark.

Our graduates are also a source of pride and accomplishment: From Sir Wilfrid Laurier, to Sophie Durocher, François Coutu, Madeleine Parent, Henry Mintzberg, Julie Payette, and Christiane Bergevin - to name just a few.

Pick up a journal or newspaper on any day of the week and you will read about people with ties to McGill.

You should know here that I am not referring only to Conrad Black, one of our graduates who has certainly been in the news a lot lately. I am also talking, for example, about Sheila Fraser, Canada's first female auditor-general, a McGill graduate.

Year after year, McGill's students and faculty excel, and contribute, and succeed disproportionately to our size and our resources. If we were prize-fighters, it would be said that we "punch above our weight".

Pourtant au Québec, McGill n'est pas assez bien connue pour ce qu'elle est aujourd'hui - par rapport, à ce qu'elle était, il y a 50 ans.

Nos efforts pour dissiper les stéréotypes associés avant la Révolution tranquille ont été insuffisants. Tout comme nos efforts pour dire aux Québécois que : McGill fait partie de la famille québécoise, que c'est une source importante d'influence pour Montréal et le Québec dans un société globale.

Nous allons mieux informer les Québécois - en paroles et en actes - de la valeur et du potentiel de McGill ainsi que, de notre véritable engagement envers le Québec et les Québécois. Nous désirons aussi faire en sorte que le Québec exploite pleinement les atouts, les réseaux et la réputation de McGill sur la scène mondiale, et qu'il tire le meilleur parti d'une de ses forces.

McGill reflects the new Quebec in so many ways - international in our outlook, bilingual and bicultural in our functioning, and multi-lingual in our students, staff and professors.

Nous offrons un environnement riche et diversifié qui n'a son pareil dans aucune autre université nord-américaine, comme, le soulignait The Princeton Review. Et nous en sommes très fiers, tout comme du fait que nos étudiants comptent plus de 50 % de Québécois, 25 % de Canadiens, le reste, de l'étranger.

Plus de 20 % de nos 30 000 étudiants sont francophones. Tous peuvent soumettre leurs travaux et leurs examens en français, en plus de pouvoir suivre des cours donnés en français dans plusieurs facultés. C'est le cas de la faculté de droit qui est tout à fait bilingue. Nous avons formé des partenariats en enseignement et en recherche avec plusieurs établissements du Québec, dont l'UQAM, Concordia, l'Université de Sherbrooke, HEC, l'Université Laval, l'UQAC et des autres.

Je tiens à ce que les Québécois le sachent. Je désire aussi que nos confrères sachent que McGill est une université publique comme ses homologues du Québec, et, qu'elle est financée - ou vraiment sous-financée - de la même manière que les autres universités.

Which brings me to my next point. Quebecers have built Quebec's fine system of universities with courage and vision and have supported it as a cornerstone of progressive social policy for over 30 years.

But today, these achievements are in jeopardy because of severe and chronic under-funding.

The figures are staggering. Compared with Canadian averages, Quebec universities are underfunded by over $375 million a year. That does not take into account lost ground, estimated at $2.6 billion, over the past decade. And this, at a time when competition is increasingly fierce for the best professors, graduate students and undergraduates, not only locally- but especially across Canada and around the modern world. Where all societies depend on talent and knowledge to succeed.

The bottom line is that we are starving our students and potential students and our research programs of much needed funds - the very areas where we should be investing strategically to compete and to succeed in the global knowledge society, as others do.

We have a unique opportunity, with the Commission Parlementaire, to change public policy and the course of higher education and research in Québec. Not for McGill, not for the Quebec university system, but for Quebecers and for our future success as a society.

I want to acknowledge the government's leadership in creating the opportunity for timely public debate on this topic.

Many people have already spoken out, but I urge all of you - business people, community leaders and concerned Montrealers - to join the debate. We must send a clear message to Quebec City that we cannot shortchange our university system.

In education, as in business, the benchmarks are increasingly competitive and very international. The status quo is simply not an option. If Quebec is to compete successfully in the knowledge society, we must set our aspirations and standards higher, and we must reach them.

We need to acknowledge that universities are more important than ever in building the economy, in enhancing our health and our social and cultural development. Even our security.

A special feature of Quebec's university system in addition to strong education has been outstanding research and researchers. Such as:

  • Dr. Sam David who identified an enzyme for preventing and controlling Multiple Sclerosis, or
  • Professor Margaret Lock, whose research and writing informs the ongoing debate about the concept of brain death.

We have also been very successful in moving research advances to the commercial marketplace:

In 2001, as example, McGill researchers:

  • disclosed 81 new inventions,
  • filed 103 US patent applications;
  • licensed the use of 28 inventions;
  • generated $6.4 million dollars in license or equity income;
  • and formed 5 new companies.

One example:

  • Dr. Emily Hamilton, founded LMS Medical Systems Ltd., a leader in the use of special systems that provide real-time guidance to obstetricians during baby delivery - having important health and economic impacts.

And while each Quebec university has a special mission, universities with medical schools and health sciences programs contribute in a powerful way to quality health care, teaching and research. We have two world-class teaching hospital networks in Montreal, the Centre Hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal (CHUM) and the McGill University Health Centre (CHUM). We welcome the government's commitment to our two crucial hospital redevelopment projects and look forward to receiving the report of the Technical Review Committee shortly.

The government has stated that it has two priorities - health and education. We welcome the commitments to health but, invite more attention to education. Both are important.

Like our sister universities, McGill has made a number of recommendations to the Quebec government on how to resolve the underfunding problem. We all hope that the Charest government will move quickly. There is simply no choice if we care about our future.

Nowhere in the world is the government purse deep enough to fund, virtually all by itself, a university system that achieves both excellent quality and accessibility. Not in Europe, not in South America, not in North America. And yet that is what we have been trying to do in Quebec.

To be competitive, Quebec policy must increase and expand revenue sources for universities. Possible sources include: federal funds, philanthropy, enhanced research successes including partnerships, and, increased tuition with a combined commitment to enhanced student financial support, program quality and accountability to the public.

We also recommend that the Government commit to multi-year core funding of our universities. Multi-year funding would provide universities with more stability, enabling us to better plan in the development of innovative teaching and research projects, and, to better leverage funds from others including the federal government and private sector partners.

Let me return to the topic of tuition fees, which I know is a sensitive issue.

Tuition fees have been frozen in Quebec since 1994 and have not even been indexed to regular increases in the cost of living, leading to effective decreases in tuition revenue. As a result, our undergraduates, on average, pay less than $2000 per year, less than half the Canadian average of more than $4000.

De nombreuses personnes prétendent que le gel des droits de scolarité au Québec favorise l'accessibilité. Ce n'est pas vrai. Le taux d'inscription dans les universités québécoises figure parmi les plus bas au Canada, tout comme l'obtention d'un diplôme. Selon Statistique Canada, 20 % des Québécois âgés de 20-21 ans ont fréquenté l'université en 2000-01. À titre comparatif, la Nouvelle-Écosse a le plus haut taux de fréquentation universitaire, soit 33 %, et les droits de scolarité les plus élevés au Canada. Fait intéressant, des pays Européen de l'Ouest qui n'exigent pas de droits de scolarité ont des taux de fréquentation inférieurs à ceux du Québec.

Rien ne prouve que des droits de scolarité peu élevés favorisent ceux qui sont économiquement désavantagés. Les étudiants de familles riches sont plus susceptibles de fréquenter l'université.

Notre position est qu'aucun Québécois qualifié ne devrait être refusé à l'université pour des raisons financiers.

Pourtant, le système actuel et le sous-financement nous empêchent de fournir de l'aide à tous ceux qui en ont besoin.

Le gouvernement devrait en premier lieu ajuster le financement des universités à la moyenne canadienne et, à tout le moins, les indexer sur les hausses du coût de la vie, et ce depuis 1994.

But there are other important funding issues:

  • Private donations and partnerships with organizations and industry must not be seen as a substitute for government funding, and government should immediately guarantee that there will be no such displacement.
  • Donations should be encouraged through matching programs and tax incentives as a way of pushing higher the levels of excellence and accessibility of our universities.
  • Every single Quebec university stands to gain from an enhanced culture of philanthropy as has been demonstrated elsewhere.

Four Quebec universities have already succeeded in raising over $100 million in private campaigns.

À ce sujet, permettez-moi de clarifier une idée reçue, fausse mais tenace. L'idée que McGill est riche. Ce n'est pas le cas.

McGill's chronic underfunding is by no means offset by its endowment. These funds, though very important, do not begin to make up for McGill's underfunding, which even within the Quebec system, for example, is short $62 million per year in operating support compared to our peer Quebec universities. And, remember, the competition counts on philanthropic support.

In short, Quebec's universities need more money and we need more sources of revenue and we need your help in obtaining them.

Recteurs Denis, Lowy and I will be happy to have you fill out the pledge cards at the back of the room after dessert.

Before concluding, I would just like to say that universities contribute much to Quebec society and that they would contribute even more if they were funded properly.

And there is an urgency to getting the funding right. Why?

Because we face daily, the fiercest competition from around the world

  • for faculty,
  • for students,
  • for research investment,
  • for research partners, and,
  • for financial support.

And, as our resources suffer, our peers are investing

  • in better laboratory facilities,
  • specialized equipment,
  • libraries and other supports of research and scholarship.

This underfunding puts us in danger of losing out on the top talent we need to grow our programs to increase the competition of our industry sectors, and to attract the young scholars and graduate students who will lead in the future. And, again, it is a myth that we can achieve effective levels of accessibility or quality at current levels of university funding and low frozen tuition fees.

We face a moral and social imperative to lead with our values and to set effective goals for the future of our society. I believe we are at a moment of decisive opportunity. I am optimistic about our capacity to choose with foresight and to act with determination. Quebec has long been home to builders of vision and courage and ingenuity, and is home to such people today.

Institutions, like people, and societies either move forward or fall back. It takes hard work and vision to be successful. As each one of you knows, life does not play out on an inert stage.

This is a societal effort. And we count on your support. Only with it will we serve Quebec fully: today - and tomorrow.

On international Women's Day I close with a quote inspired by Mme. Justice L'Heureux-Dubé.

"It is people who are important; it is for them that accessible, quality education is rendered."

Back to top