Universities and the future of Quebec: Comme les deux doigts de la main

Speech to the Canadian Club of Montreal
Professor Heather Munroe-Blum, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, McGill University
June 14, 2010

Thank you, Umberto, for that kind introduction. A warm thank you as well to Mr. John Godber of Borden Ladner Gervais, which sponsored this event, and to the Canadian Club of Montreal for providing me with the opportunity to speak to you today. It is a great honour for me.

I would like to recognize in particular Ministers Courchesne, Gignac and Weil, as well as Mr. Geoff Kelly, MNA for Jacques Cartier, Mr. Kip Cobbett, President of the Board of Governors of McGill University, Governors, colleagues, my fellow rectors and friends. I am honoured by your presence here.

On June 22, 1960, nearly fifty years ago to this day, Jean Lesage swept into power under the slogan, “C'est le temps que ça change.” The election marked the start of a powerful metamorphosis: the Quiet Revolution.

Lesage’s government swiftly transformed an uneven and harmfully outdated university system. The new Université du Québec created access throughout the regions. Existing institutions were modernized. A new loans and bursaries program gave poor kids a chance at a university education. Quebec led what is now a worldwide movement to rejuvenate and democratize higher education.

The architects of that revolution built the foundation for our current higher education system. Half a century later, this system endures but is teetering on the edge of a precipice. Across the world, economies are globalizing, diversifying and relying more and more on knowledge and technology. The world has transformed, and is still evolving at a breathtaking pace.

The global financial crisis is proof that a strong system of higher education is necessary for our survival. Economies dependant on old-school manufacturing are being crushed. But those which are rebuilding themselves around knowledge-based sectors, have emerged still standing – and with an unprecedented opportunity to leap ahead, while others struggle to pick up the pieces.

In the world of the new Knowledge and Education Revolution, universities and the future of Quebec are comme les deux doigts de la main. If we strengthen our universities, we can reach out and seize that opportunity to build our future.


The biggest obstacles to our universities’ success are the outdated objects of our ambition and underfunding. The gap between the funding of Quebec’s universities and the Canadian average is well over $500 million per year. Where once Quebec made up for its low tuition with the highest government contribution in Canada, we have now sunk to sixth place in terms of per-student Quebec operating grants. If you add in tuition, our per-student funding is the lowest in the country.

But there is hope. In recent months, the issue of university under-financing has emerged as the subject of a passionate and heated debate. Certainly McGill felt the heat, due to our decision to raise MBA tuition to the average of our Canadian peers. Others in Quebec have created this model before, as McGill has, for example, in the successful partnership with HEC for an executive MBA program. The first impressive group of students graduated from this program just two weeks ago and we have a great group of students lined up for next year. Similarly, the higher MBA tuition will create a self-funded MBA program, not dependent on government support. This is a business plan that comes not from arrogance, but from observing best practices, and from necessity, desperation if you will, to have equity, accessibility and quality reflected in our MBA funding framework. And again, we have a great group of incoming Quebecers and students from elsewhere, who have lined up for this program.

And support for this self-funded MBA has been strong from Quebecers, as has support for ambitious and realistic university funding and funding sources. The Pacte pour le financement concurrentiel de nos universités, developed by a group of prominent citizens, stated, « sans un renforcement substantiel du financement de nos universités, nous sommes convaincus que l’avenir économique du Québec est compromis. » Not just our economic future, but the very fabric of our society is at risk. We must take our future in hand, and do so now.

A vision based on values

In the debate on university funding, one word dominates the conversation: values -- Quebec’s passion for accessibility and equity. These values, proudly forged in the Quiet Revolution, reveal what is truly important – not the mechanisms, not the means; but the end goals that we all aspire to.

So why, when it comes to universities, are we clinging to outmoded ways of doing things, using ineffective, indeed now perversely misaligned funding mechanisms to try to achieve our common values, mechanisms that do not achieve improved access or quality education for all Quebecers? Globalization and the Technology Revolution demand that we embrace new ways of thinking and acting if we are to succeed in this new world order. And we cannot wait years to do so! Nowhere else are others waiting for us to “catch up” before they forge ahead. Others are eager for their own success.

The means we employ, after all, must be capable of achieving the goal, of creating the society we envision. Now, the task ahead of us in Quebec is this: to take a hard look at our own actual educational outcomes, to ask whether or not these are good enough, and to make the necessary changes to ensure that the fine values we all embrace in this society are realized in outcomes that will serve Quebecers, now and in the future.

Accessibility and Equity

“Accessibility” – who gets to receive the benefits of a university education and innovation?

“Equity” – what is fair? Let’s take a look at these two values.

In Quebec, some view low tuition as a precondition of accessibility and equity. But now, study after study has shown that the barriers to higher education are primarily social and cultural, not financial. For success in a modern, education-based economy, we must inspire in students, and their families, the desire to make university education their future, starting in primary school. We must make it their expectation.

I grew up in a poor family, though blessed with parents convinced of the value of education. Even though my mother was unable to attend university, she passed her hunger for education on to me – a hunger that has been a driving force of my life, and one that I have tried to inspire in others.

The employment market is shifting rapidly. A university degree has taken on a fundamental importance today. Across Canada during the worst of the economic downturn, between September 2008 and March 2010, there were nearly 700,000 fewer jobs for those who had not completed a university degree, compared to 150,000 more jobs for university graduates. Downturn or not, these trends will continue to accelerate.

So let’s examine this traditional pairing of low tuition with accessibility. Nova Scotia has the highest university graduation rates and participation rates – and the highest tuition. Conversely, Quebec‘s “dollar store” tuition lands us in the bottom half of Canada for graduation rates and second-last for university participation. From 1992 to 2007, the number of female university graduates in Quebec rose by less than 20 per cent, the lowest by far in Canada, and male university graduates by 13 per cent, the second lowest for men. Can we still say that low tuition increases access to university?

A new Statistics Canada study concluded that “for many with the will and the ability to attend college or university, cost often is of secondary importance.” But secondary does not mean inconsequential. The poorest students need support to pay the costs of housing, transportation, food and books. Currently, nearly everyone in Quebec pays the same, regardless of family income or future earning potential. Thus, taxes from poorer families subsidize students from the richest families – a situation that has been called “reverse welfare.” We’re acting like a reverse Robin Hood – the poor giving to the rich. Is that fair? Can we call this equity? We should instead raise tuition to the Canadian average, while systematically reinvesting a substantial portion of that money into financial support for low-income students. Such a program would reverse this injustice and target aid to those who need it.

Thus, let’s get the aid to those who need it.


Let’s look at a third key value – quality. Considering their severe underfunding, Quebec universities perform pretty well. But “pretty well” isn’t going to cut it in this globalized, intensely talent-and-education-driven world. As Minister Bachand declared in a speech following the 2010 budget : « Nos universités doivent pouvoir rivaliser avec les meilleures au monde. C’est ce que nous leur demanderons. » Our social quality of life, one’s personal health and success in today’s job market demand a widely educated citizenry and a high quality of education. So how do we do on “quality”?

Currently, Quebec has only one university in the top 100 of both the Times Higher Education-QS and the Shanghai Jiao Tong world university rankings. In the Maclean’s national university rankings, only one Quebec university reached the top 10 in any of the three major mission classification types of universities that are ranked. That’s one university out of the top 30 in Canada. Rankings are not a perfect tool, but many students, professors and employers rely on them, and when trends are repeated from one ranking to another, they simply cannot be ignored. Quebec must and can do better. And, we cannot wait to improve.

In his budget, Minister Bachand announced the government’s intention to increase tuition fees, linked to a review of the performance of Quebec universities. Minister Bachand has hit the nail on the head: addressing the chronic underfunding of universities hand-in-hand with a focus on results-driven performance. This is the only way to boost accessibility and quality, to address equity and Quebec’s ability to compete in North American and worldwide.

And, if we look to jurisdictional peers, the European Commission recommends as part of its modernization agenda for higher education that “Universities should be funded more for what they do than for what they are” by applying “performance-based funding.” This model rewards achievement in measurable, accountable terms.

Evidence points to the “entente de partenariat” as the best mechanism for achieving performance-based funding. In this model, government and each university agree on a set of goals – societal goals, such as increasing university participation and degree completion rates, and also individual goals relevant to an institution’s unique mission -- for example, service to a region, enrolment based on undergraduate student characteristics or research and graduate student intensity. Under such ententes, funding then is in some meaningful part based on attaining those goals. And regardless of size, geographical reach, or mandate, every university would and should be provided with incentives to excel -- each in its own way– so as to best serve Quebecers and Quebec’s success as a jurisdiction.

In this model, government sees important goals tracked – and realized. Universities with strong, accountable leadership and the effective oversight of their governing boards manage how they achieve these agreed-upon goals, not government. “Ententes de partenariat” would move us away from a web of costly and ineffective government regulations and increasing costs of bureaucracy that attempts to detail exactly how universities should manage their affairs – a tangled, dysfunctional and costly web. With ententes de partenariat, strong university leadership and highly engaged and experienced boards, government would be more appropriately focused on incentive funding for improved program quality, accessibility for those in financial need, timely degree completion and research breakthroughs that serve Quebec at a high level. The highest-performing universities reside in jurisdictions that unite autonomy with smart accountability – accountability that is results-driven, benchmarked to national and international peers, free of unnecessary red tape and truly linked to performance-based funding. In Quebec, our current very large and costly bureaucracy reduces capacity for innovation, takes away responsibility, discourages strong leaders and talented committed volunteers, and hurts both the reputation of institutions and the reputation of Quebec as a confident place, one that is ready to compete successfully.

Open and connected to the world

We can and we must change our course, and we have government and university leadership commited to doing just that. I urge that we all embrace the passion of our premier and his government to open Quebec to the world. And we have three ministers here with us today who show commitment to doing just that.

While Jean Lesage anticipated change, he could not possibly have imagined the nature of that change.The Quiet Revolution occured in a pre-globalized, old economy world that no longer exists. It’s time to update the educational trinity of accessibility-equity-quality, by adding in this critically important fourth value: “connected to the world”. Through our educated students and professors, high impact research and innovation and strategic partnerships, our universities can bring Quebec to the world and the world to Quebec.

Highly performing universities are magnets that attract thousands of talented people each year if – and only if – student support, program quality and performance-driven funding and compensation come together to keep pace with hot global markets and recruitment competition. With Canada’s most rapidly aging population, Quebec must have the fresh talent to fuel the knowledge economy, create high-end companies and jobs, and to sustain effective social programs.

The government of Quebec has been extending a welcoming hand to our international students, and it is streamlining daunting immigration processes— an excellent start. We can all help international students put down roots, by promoting community internships, partnerships and extracurricular activities. Free language instruction would also remove a huge barrier, for many, to achieving full integration into Quebec society. Indeed, scientific literacy, multilingual ability, knowledge of the major cultures of the world and international experience are defining characteristics for success everywhere today.

Top talent and investment don’t stand still. The smartest graduates, innovators, professors and business entrepreneurs receive new offers all the time, from all over North America and globally. Try as we might, not everyone will make their home in Quebec, and this is a good thing if we take advantage of it.

I suggest that we ask not just the questions of how we attract and keep the brightest people, but also how we remain strategically connected to those who leave. Building strong relations internationally and maintaining connections with expatriate scientists, medical experts and social and economic entrepreneurs is important for Quebec. Those who leave need not be a loss – but a golden opportunity. They can be our giant Rolodex into the world; they are key to our success.

A new vision for education

But to succeed requires a new vision and urgent action plan for education. So here we are, 50 years after that historic election. Much of the world is rocked by economic turmoil. While other countries struggle merely to survive the financial smackdown of the last two years, our economy is relatively stable – and while other nations must focus on survival, we can steal advantage and thrive. But timing is everything. We must act now.

And what should we do? Those of you who know me will not be surprised that I have a few suggestions – five, in fact.

First - to improve our university graduation rates, we must raise our dismal high school graduation rates, currently sitting at 69 per cent for all of Quebec and, in Montreal, at a shocking 57 per cent. In March 2009, the Groupe d’action, led by Monsieur Jacques Ménard, called on Quebecers to pull together and boost high school graduation rates to 80 per cent over the next decade, a target the government soon adopted. We all need to pledge our support to get young people educated, to play our part in this effort. It is ironic that health care costs are starving education, when it is well-proven that a well-educated population is healthier and requires less health care service!

At the same time, we must increase the proportion of young Quebecers with a university degree to provide the skilled workers, the highly qualified personnel Quebec requires to succeed, to raise our GDP to an effective level. Our young people must benefit from learning in a research-rich environment, so that Quebec’s fine research can fuel innovation and create new knowledge-driven and recession-proof jobs. Currently, 28 per cent of Quebecers aged 25 to 34 years of age hold degrees; the OECD average is 39 per cent. I call for us to raise Quebec’s rate from 28 per cent to at least 45 per cent in the next 10 years. We’ve excelled before. Why shouldn’t we aim to be the best again?

Second, universities must be invested with the funds and the autonomy they require to compete, to lead on the national and world stages. These, coupled with intelligent accountability, strong leadership and good governance linked to the entente de partenariat can realize full transparency and high performance.

Third, let’s work together to leverage the global connections at the heart of every university, by helping students from outside Quebec to put down roots, and by staying connected via productive new networks with those graduates and professors who leave.

Fourth, I call on you each one of you as leaders to help make education itself Quebec’s number one cause – to make it our most dearly held value and our greatest achievement. Let’s talk up the importance of education at meetings and around the dinner table, write about it via social media, in our community and company newsletters and in letters to the editor. We must promote education everywhere we go, with every young Quebecer we meet, stressing this key link between higher education and their future, and Quebec’s future.

Fifth and finally, let’s be inspired by the great spirit, the prescience and the ambition of the Quiet Revolution. The progress made during that era was phenomenal: the nationalization of electrical companies under Hydro-Québec, the building of the Manic-Outardes complex, the creation of the Caisse de depot et placement. We have done it before, and we can do it again.

The wellbeing of Quebec can no longer be the responsibility of government alone -- it’s the responsibility of each one of us. To quote Minister Gignac’s November speech to the Chambre de Commerce du Montréal métropolitain, « Bâtir un Québec créatif, innovant, entreprenant et accueillant n'est pas la seule responsabilité du gouvernement du Québec, c'est notre responsabilité à tous. » 

Lesage rallied Quebecers with the slogan “C’est le temps que ça change” to launch the Quiet Revolution. The times have changed. And now, the means must also change. The not-so-quiet Knowledge Revolution has thundered across the globe, completely transforming the drivers of social and economic wellbeing. We must find the best means for today to achieve our ambitions.

Universities and the future of Quebec are comme les deux doigts de la main. For Quebec to be a healthy, vibrant and socially just society two years, five years, 10 years and half a century from now, we must make tough decisions and exert strong leadership across all sectors. Quebecers expect us to act, to make a determined effort to renew higher education -- not in two years, not in 10 years, but today.

Thank you.

Back to top