McGill: Un atout essentiel pour le Québec

Presentation before the Commission de l'éducation de L'Assemblée nationale du Québec
Prof. Heather Munroe-Blum
January 16, 2007


Mr. Chairman:

I would first like to thank the Commission members for the privilege of this audience. These sessions are enormously useful as a forum for constructive public dialogue. They are much appreciated by us and by our colleagues at Québec's other universities, and I believe significantly serve the public interest.

I would like to begin by introducing my McGill colleagues. They are: Anthony C. Masi, Provost; Denis Thérien, Vice-Principal, Research and International Relations; and Michael Goldbloom, McGill's new Vice-Principal, Inter-institutional Relations, who has just returned to McGill and Montreal from Toronto, where he was Publisher of the Toronto Star, Canada's largest newspaper. He will become even more familiar to you as he guides McGill's partnerships and interaction with government.

I am very happy to be surrounded by a very talented executive team as well as my colleagues across the university. And I am proud to say that in the past four years we have reformed our governance processes, developed a strategic academic plan and committed ourselves to performance assessment processes that will reflect the highest standards of public accountability.

We have already provided you with the background information related to our accountability requirements. Consequently, in today's presentation, we intend to focus on the future.

We appear before you at a time when Québec's post-secondary education system is in crisis. As a society, we have become mired in a status quo that prevents us from achieving the progress that is critical to securing a healthy, prosperous and fulfilling future for our students. Québec urgently needs to take the steps that will allow it to create the progressive, socially just and economically prosperous society to which we all aspire and that we want to bequeath to our children and to their children.

If we do not take bold, decisive action now to reinvest in our universities, the quality of our education will continue to deteriorate and the future of our young people will be compromised.

We appear before you today with a sense of urgency, profound concern and deep determination. We will focus our remarks on the following four key points:

  1. First, there is an urgent need for substantial reinvestment in our universities. Present levels of funding make it impossible for universities in Québec to enhance accessibility, to sustain and grow quality or to increase completion rates. A new funding framework must be implemented based on sustained, effective government investment, on higher tuition fees linked to increased student aid and on matching programs to foster growth of charitable donations.
  2. Second, the unfair McGill adjustment must be abolished.
  3. Third, the unique roles, contributions and needs of Québec's four research-intensive universities with medical and graduate programs must be recognized and supported.
  4. Fourth, McGill's unique international role and impact in Québec should be recognized.

1. Reinvestment in universities: An urgent priority

More than two years have passed since McGill last appeared before this Commission and since the report of the Commission parlementaire sur la qualité, l'accessibilité et le financement des universités. Several of that Commission's recommendations gave us significant cause for hope. Sadly, they have yet to be implemented. Indeed, when we appeared before the Commission in 2004, we argued that Québec could not afford to be immobile while other jurisdictions moved aggressively forward. Unfortunately, to our collective detriment, Québec has not only stood still, it has lost ground. Where once we led, we are now falling further and further behind.

For example, university access and graduation rates in Québec have been shockingly stagnant in the past ten years while there has been substantial progress in other provinces and countries. The current Québec access (participation) rate of 41% compares to an OECD average of 53% and a US average of 63%. We have gone from being among the leaders to having fallen significantly below the average; a breathtaking and disturbing reversal in a society that, more than 40 years ago, decided to make education one of its highest priorities.

We believe that Québec — our students and our society as a whole — must refuse to be satisfied with the status quo and must commit unequivocally to reversing this situation. Education must once again become Québec's leading priority, as it was in the time of the Révolution tranquille. As I stated in a recent speech before the Chambre de commerce du Montréal métropolitain: "First...we need to clearly define targets respecting university attendance and graduation rates, as well as increases in master's and doctorate level graduation rates and post-doctoral enrolment numbers... We must build a university system capable of competing on the world stage with world players."

In order to have the world-class university system Québecers require, greater investment will be needed.

We recognize and appreciate that the Government of Québec makes a very significant contribution to post-secondary education. Nonetheless, we stand with our fellow universities in stating that the underfunding of post-secondary education is seriously handicapping Québec society.

We make this claim not out of self-interest but with the future of our students and all Québec students foremost in mind, with the firm conviction that achieving economic prosperity and social justice in Québec requires rectification of that underfunding.

We believe that government alone cannot foot the entire bill for the enhanced investment that is required. In fact, nowhere is there evidence of a university system that achieves quality and accessibility on government funding alone. Students who benefit directly from high-quality post-secondary education must also be asked to contribute more, when their families can afford it. The current tuition fee policy primarily benefits students from upper middle class families and more affluent sectors of society. This is regressive, not progressive. Despite the recent opinion polls, the inescapable truth is that subsidizing tuition fees forces the average taxpayer to help pay for the education of children of the most affluent. We all favour a generous policy which allows for easy access to university. But the freeze in tuition fees does not in fact accomplish this.

Comme le disait Bernard Hugonnier, Directeur adjoint pour l'éducation, a l'OCDE, "In countries where higher education is heavily dependent on public finance, this inequity in access and participation carries the risk of adverse distributional consequences (the less well-off subsidizing education for the elite) unless income tax systems are highly progressive."

Québec undergraduate tuition fees have been frozen, at $1,668 per year, since 1994, meaning they have actually declined in dollar value over this time. Meanwhile, during this same period, they have nearly tripled elsewhere in the country, providing Canadian universities close to a third of their total revenue. The Québecers we are educating today deserve the same and greater accessibility, quality and services that students enjoyed a decade ago. Maintaining the tuition freeze creates the appearance of enhanced accessibility, but does not in fact enhance access. The tuition freeze has resulted in a diminished quality of education, both in terms of programs of study and the physical environment of our campuses.

We understand the political sensitivity of the tuition issue, but as so many voices have already done, from political commentators and economists to the youth wing of the current government's own party, we exhort all of you today to do what is in the ultimate best interests of our students and of our society. What started out as a subsidy and grew into an article of faith is actually now undermining our commitment to quality education and degree completion. We encourage all political parties to rise above partisan political considerations and to undertake the pedagogical exercise of explaining to Québecers that it is in the long-term interest of Québec society and Québec students to end the tuition freeze.

We believe that the time has come for a new tuition policy integrated with a commitment by the universities to invest a significant portion of the increased tuition to augment student aid — and McGill is committed to doing so. The freeze on tuition fees should be removed immediately and Québec tuition should rise at least to the Canadian average within three years. In such a re-regulated setting, McGill would commit 30% of the additional tuition fees to bursaries for students, and the balance would be used primarily for university improvements, from which the students will be the first to benefit.

In this way, we could maintain our profound commitment to accessibility while simultaneously strengthening our universities. Such a policy would allow McGill and other Québec universities to promise that no eligible student will be refused a high-quality university education because of insufficient financial resources, something we cannot now afford to do.

We must also encourage further contributions from private sector philanthropy through enhanced government matching programs. With determination and conviction, it is possible to create a philanthropic tradition upon which to build an endowment fund. Québec's universities have understood the critical importance of building endowments and have dedicated significant energy to working with their partners to grow this critical component of their institutional development. McGill's endowment fund, accumulated over the 185 years since its founding, is primarily reserved for purposes designated by donors and principally serves to provide financial support to students.

Other provinces have programs to match charitable giving. For example, the Ontario Student Support Trust Fund makes available $50 million every year to match private and corporate cash donations to university endowment funds. Investment income generated by these funds supports bursaries for students in financial need. This program has been so successful for every Ontario university, including those in the regions, that two successive governments, with different political orientations, have committed themselves to it. We ask the Government of Québec to make it as attractive for donors to invest in the future of Québec students as it is for them to invest in the dreams of their Ontario and Alberta counterparts, through matching programs, enlightened tax policy and other fiscal incentives.

2. The McGill adjustment

With respect to McGill's particular funding needs, we believe that the so-called "McGill adjustment" is unfair and should be abolished. The Budget Rules grant substantial subsidies based on a student weighting process designed to address the real cost discrepancies per student, depending on discipline and level of study. In 2000, McGill received $15 million less than what that formula provided, in what was termed a "McGill adjustment." Since that time, we have had to live with this penalty, whereby a portion of the amount rightly owed to McGill is redistributed among Québec's other universities. Over the seven years of this practice, our accumulated shortfall has grown to $80 million. We consider this to be a debt owed by the Québec government to McGill, only a small portion of which has been repaid, and which grows every year. McGill is, unfairly, the only institution subjected to this penalty. In Appendix 16 of the Budget Rules, the cost of ending this discriminatory practice is set out. Although we are encouraged by the modest progress made this year to rectify the problem, this practice needs to be abolished in short order to ensure that McGill is treated fairly.

3. The unique roles and responsibilities of research-intensive universities with medical and doctoral programs

Québec's research-intensive universities — McGill, Laval, Montreal and Sherbrooke — play a unique and crucial role within our system of higher education, through the scale and the nature of the research they conduct, and because they educate graduate students, train post-doctoral fellows and prepare students in professional programs, including medicine.

There is significant evidence that comprehensive, research-intensive universities occupy a crucial niche and play a distinctive and important role in society. They prepare highly qualified personnel for the workforce through professional training, master's and doctoral education and post-doctoral training. Those with master's or other advanced degrees are known to be not only key drivers of innovation and economic success, but less of a burden on the health care system over the long term.

In conjunction with recognition of the distinctive role played by research-intensive universities and the financial support to allow them to fulfill their unique missions, university research is the foundation of a knowledge-based society and a modern economy. McGill's impact can be measured not only by the outstanding researchers we attract and those that we train, but also by breakthroughs that make it possible not only to solve the mysteries of medicine, treat and even cure disease but also to set up companies, attract businesses and create high-quality jobs. The importance of world-class university research to the recruitment and retention of exceptional students and faculty, to social well-being and to health and economic prosperity cannot be underestimated.

At McGill, our research and teaching missions are inseparable and symbiotic. We pride ourselves on the fact that all of our professors devote their time and talent to both of these critical and central roles and that our undergraduate as well as our graduate and professional students are enriched by their interaction with the research of our professors and exposure to a range of disciplines.

McGill supports the research and innovation strategy and goals recently announced by the government. But we also need to establish research priorities and develop world class centres of excellence in collaboration with Québec's other universities, especially with the three research-intensive, medical-doctoral institutions. Such centres must be provided with stable, predictable and guaranteed funding over the long term. We are anxious to engage with the Government of Québec and other partners to achieve strategic plans and goals in this regard.

We seek to ensure that McGill maintains its leading status in Canada in terms of research funds per capita and we believe that it is in Québec's best interests that we do so. Our researchers are currently engaged in thousands of projects, among them:

  • Working with fellow researchers from the Outaouais to the Saguenay, from Abitibi-Témiscamingue to the Bas-Saint-Laurent, achieving genetic breakthroughs, exploring the sustainability of forest ecosystems and mapping the impact of climate change on marine life in the gulf of the St. Lawrence;
  • Counselling at-risk youth in the streets of Montreal, providing free dental care to the elderly poor and working tirelessly to end the annual toll in Québec hospitals from the C. difficile bacteria;
  • Fighting AIDS in Africa by reducing transmission rates from mothers to babies, helping devastated communities raise an entire generation of AIDS orphans and increasing awareness among teenagers in the streets of Johannesburg;
  • Solving the mysteries of autism and helping the remarkable individuals afflicted with it make their way in the world;
  • Exploring the seemingly endless ways in which nanotechnology, from neuroscience to computing, can improve our quality of life;
  • Leading the drive for environmental sustainability, including finding solutions to global warming; and
  • Leading the world in charting how and why the human brain responds to the sound of music.

As a direct consequence of our investment in research, McGill secures more patents in the United States than any other Canadian university. We are home to the largest medical research institute in Canada. From 2001 to 2006, we attracted into Québec $322 million from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, which was 43% of the aggregate amount obtained by all Québec universities combined and 12.6% of that allocated across Canada.

In discussing the importance of our research-intensive universities, we believe that it is essential to understand the critical importance and enormous benefit of Montreal's two faculties of medicine and their academic hospitals and the outstanding research, teaching, training and patient care they provide. It would be a tragic error to treat as a liability what Boston and other great world cities celebrate as an asset: the fact that Montreal boasts two faculties of medicine and their two major teaching hospitals. In fact, we are the only city in Canada that can make this claim.

Our two great comprehensive teaching hospitals are not only engaged in healthy competition, they cooperate and complement each other better than many hospitals within single university systems across Canada and the United States.

But these assets are severely at risk. If the new hospitals are not completed quickly, a strength will become a weakness and the people of Montreal and Québec will be the losers.

It is important to emphasize that high-quality health care is also a key inducement in attracting international business. The combined resources of the McGill and Université de Montréal medical faculties are extraordinary assets in this regard. The inextricable links between quality of medical education, talent attraction and retention and economic prosperity are inarguable. Québec has a competitive advantage in this regard. We should do all we can to enhance it.

4. McGill's international role

Universities today have a significant impact on local, regional and national economies. They are, increasingly, the driving engine of human and intellectual capital. McGill is both an importer and exporter of that knowledge, talent, innovation and expertise. Our collaboration with the Québec government in enhancing bilateral ties and forming research partnerships with India and China are perfect illustrations of this. So too is our award-winning, uniquely internationalist transsystemic approach to legal education in the McGill Faculty of Law. In the hundreds of international research collaborations that we are engaged in, McGill provides a bridge for knowledge and talent between Québec and the rest of the world that is the envy of other jurisdictions.

This is evident in the diversity of our student population, with one of the highest proportions of full-time international students at the undergraduate level in North America. McGill must compete directly with other Canadian, US and international universities for students, faculty and research funding. The competition for exceptional graduate students — and we have more doctoral students than any other Québec university — is especially fierce. More and more, international, Canadian and Québec students we would be eager to admit are choosing universities outside of Québec that can provide them with more attractive infrastructure, services and financial incentives — in the form of scholarships or participation on research teams.

Recently, the Conférence régionale des élus de Montréal made public a remarkable brief titled "Stepping up efforts to attract and retain the best international students in Montréal." We support the recommendations set out in that report. Tuition paid by international students should be retained by the universities in which the students are enrolled. Québec taxpayers do not pay for these students, except in the instance of students who come to study pursuant to international agreements between their country of origin and the Québec government. These international students support quality teaching and staff jobs at our universities. It is estimated that international students at McGill alone contribute some $100 million to the local economy through consumer spending. But international students often require special services above and beyond those needed by other students, particularly when they need help here or in the event of personal tragedy or natural disaster in their home country. At the undergraduate level, we are prepared to finance the operating costs occasioned by these students through their tuition, reserving a share of the tuition for bursaries to disadvantaged students. Something we currently do to the best of our limited financial ability — the only Canadian university to do so.

We welcome international undergraduates wholeheartedly as an important part of what gives McGill its special character. They are a testament to what we consider our broader mission as an internationally respected institution based in a sophisticated, international city in a province and country known for their internationalist world view. McGill, like SNC Lavalin, Hydro-Québec, the Montreal Canadiens and the Cirque du Soleil, is a great Québec institution that relies for its excellence on talent from around the world. However, in order to attract international graduate students, Québec will have to provide the full government support that is offered by other successful jurisdictions.


In the most recent edition of the internationally respected Times Higher Education Supplement, McGill was ranked 21st among the world's leading universities. We were first in Canada and the only Canadian university to rank in the top 25. We hope that all Québecers will take pride in this achievement. We are proud of this ranking and are determined to improve on it. But, as is the case at other Québec universities, current policies put any progress by McGill or other Québec universities at serious risk. We can never hope to create the conditions for Québecers to be able to say with pride that we are home to one of the top ten public universities in the world without a change in our policies toward universities.

Without renewed investment, the university education received by Québecers will continue to decline. We need significant reinvestment in post-secondary education, not just in order to be competitive but as a basic principle of social justice. We need to look to increases in tuition linked to increased student aid, and to a modern, dynamic policy, particularly for research-intensive universities with medical faculties. And, within those measures, we need recognition of McGill's unique international reputation and role as a bridge between Québec and the world.

We are aware that in our presentation we have gone beyond the confines of a public accountability exercise. However, I want to assure you that we are committed to upholding the high standard of accountability practices towards our Board of Governors, our students, our alumni and this commission.

Mister Chairman, ladies and gentlemen of the Commission, thank you again for this opportunity to share both our aspirations and our concerns with you today. We appreciate your consideration of these issues and trust that you share our sense of urgency in wanting to do what is best for Québecers of both today and tomorrow. We will continue to be part of the solution, part of the success — present and future — of Québec.

We welcome your questions.

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