Tuition hike: Quebec government suggests it has rejected offer from McGill, Concordia

MONTREAL — The heads of Quebec's three English-language universities met the premier and his minister of higher education on Monday, promising to ensure that more out-of-province students graduate with a knowledge of French.

The schools made the proposal to convince the government to backtrack on its plan to double tuition for Canadian students from outside Quebec — to $17,000 from about $9,000. Quebec wants to price English-language universities out of the market for many Canadian students as a way to reduce their numbers in the province and protect the French language.

But hours after the meeting in Montreal, Higher Education Minister Pascale Déry suggested the government was only interested in making an exception for Bishop’s University, the smallest of the three, with a population of fewer than 3,000 full-time students.

In a written statement, Déry said the government was pleased that the heads of the English-language universities recognized that French is in decline in Quebec, but she seemed to dismiss their offer.

"Now, we're sticking to our principles: it's not up to Quebec taxpayers to finance the training of thousands of Canadian students from outside Quebec," she said, referring to the government's claim that the current $9,000 tuition is about half of what it costs the province to educate a university student.

"We will continue our discussions with the anglophone universities and find a solution specific to the reality of Bishop's."

The small undergraduate university in Sherbrooke, Que., has said it could close if the tuition hike leads out-of-province students, who make up almost a third of its student body, to go elsewhere.

Earlier in the day, the heads of McGill University and Concordia University and Bishop's said they would "substantially" increase the number of French courses they offer if current tuition rates were maintained. They told Quebec Premier François Legault and Déry that the plan included incentives to learn French for students from outside the province and mandatory French classes at the two Montreal universities.

"The solutions that we really focused on were what we can do more as anglophone institutions, to support non-francophone students to learn French, to improve their French, to perfect their French, to become better integrated with Quebec society and culture," Concordia president Graham Carr said in an interview Monday. He said the universities want those students to stay in the province once they graduate.

The three universities said they would aim to ensure that 40 per cent of non-French-speaking undergraduate first-year students have an intermediate level of French by the time they graduate.

Legault has said that 25 per cent of the province's university students attend English universities, which is "a bit too much."

Carr said that around 70 per cent of the students at Concordia University — the province's largest English-language school — are from Quebec and that the university estimates that around three-quarters of its students are already bilingual.

“We are universities that do not exclusively serve the anglophone community of Quebec, we serve Quebec society, Quebec society in its entirety,” Carr said.

He estimated that between nine and 10 per cent of his school's operating budget would have to be cut if the increase goes ahead.

"It's definitely very serious for us, not just from a financial perspective, it's very serious for us … in terms of how we're seen nationally and internationally," he said.

McGill, meanwhile, has estimated that the tuition hike could lead to 700 job cuts and the closure of its music school.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 6, 2023.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press