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  • David Boudeweel-Lefebvre

A reform that's causing discontent from coast to coast

In an interview last month, Minister of the French language opened up about his plan to strengthen the protection of French, expected later this fall. Among the measures unveiled, the increase in tuition fees for foreign students and students from other Canadian provinces caused quite a stir. Let’s look at why, and consider the potential implications of this increase.

What exactly are we talking about?

Currently, a Canadian student from outside Québec pays approximately $9,000 per year to attend a Québec university. Under the plan now outlined by the Minister of Higher Education, this amount would rise to $17,000. This new base price would better reflect the real cost of educating students. For international students, the increase would be even greater. But the announced reform goes beyond this mark-up: it also provides for the redistribution, in a manner to be specified, of part of the sums collected among all French-speaking universities.

A look back to better understand the current debate

In Québec, everyone agrees that universities are underfunded. It has to be said, however, that any increase in tuition fees, since the 2012 student strike that ended Jean Charest's long reign, has become taboo. In late 2018, the Liberal government quietly deregulated tuition fees for non-Québec students. Universities could now charge these students whatever they wanted. This gave English-language universities a major financial windfall. French-speaking universities, on the other hand, were left out in the cold.

What is the government's intention?

With this announcement, François Legault's team hopes to kill two birds with one stone: firstly, to financially bail out French-speaking universities, without reopening the thorny debate over tuition fees for Québec students. Secondly, to combat the anglicization of Montreal, where most English-speaking universities are located.

Mixed reactions in Québec and elsewhere in Canada

In this battle, the CAQ enjoys the support of the Université du Québec network, whose institutions are suffering cruelly from current underfunding. English-speaking universities such as McGill, Concordia and Bishop's have criticized the government's intentions, with McGill going so far as to suspend a $50-million plan to promote the French language. Elsewhere in Canada, the announcement caused a stir, receiving a cold reception from both the English-language media and the federal government. In addition to these reactions, the Québec government is likely to face other pitfalls sooner or later.

The principle of reciprocity called into question

The reform undermines Canada's long-established principle of reciprocity, under which other provinces also foot part of the bill for Québec students attending their universities. It's a safe bet, then, that this announcement will create a new chill between Québec and the other Canadian provinces. Some may even be tempted to apply a similar tuition regime to Québec students attending their institutions, at the cost of a new divide between the Belle Province and the rest of the country.

Towards a new distance between Québec and the rest of Canada?

This initiative could end up backfiring on the province: historically, many young Canadians have attended English-language schools in Québec. If they subsequently return to their home province, they return with a basic knowledge of the French language and the Québec reality. This helps foster, to a certain extent, a better understanding of Québec's distinct society, beyond Québec’s borders. If the Legault government were to go ahead with this measure, the message sent could put off this clientele and damage the cultural bridge that links the "two solitudes". In the end, neither Québec nor Canada stands to gain.


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