Chris Selley: Quebec's English universities realize now they're at war with the Legault government

The university will simply make up the $3,000 proposed tuition hike with its own money

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There is some good news from the front lines of the Quebec government’s war on English-language universities. McGill and Concordia may not have to charge $17,000 a year to out-of-province students, as the government initially proposed, but only $12,000 — a 33-per-cent increase instead of 89 per cent. And this week, both universities announced they would simply make up the difference with their own money, giving direct $3,000 grants to new students.

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This is a terrific idea on a couple of levels. One, and forgive my churlishness, it will drive nationalist language hawks bananas. McGill’s nearly $2-billion endowment has always stuck in their craws, like 100 “bonjour-his” all at once — a wretched symbol of old-timey anglo domination. Concordia’s coffers don’t bloat and groan anything like McGill’s, but even it’s flexing some muscle. (The francophone universities’ donor pools are much smaller and less generous; Quebecers give far less to charities than most other Canadians do.)

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More importantly, the $3,000 grants are an example of what McGill and Concordia should clearly be doing: insulating themselves, with their own financial clout, as much as possible form the caprices of the government of the day in Quebec City. There is very little hope any government in the near future will be significantly kinder to anglophones in general, and to their universities in particular. There is every reason to believe the Parti Québécois, which polls suggest may well form the next government, would be even more bastardly.

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University of Toronto philosophy professor Joseph Heath recently argued for the longstanding (but usually very hypothetical) idea of McGill going  private. “McGill could cut back the number of students, jack the tuition up to $50,000 for everyone, and see what happens,” he suggested on his personal Substack blog. “My suspicion is that they would remain solvent (and the Quebec government would get what it wants, which is a reduction in the number of anglophones living in Montreal, and the removal of the ongoing irritant of the Université de Montréal being the second-best university in the public system).”

I expect McGill going private would be incredibly complicated, bordering on impossible. But if the university’s leadership considered privatization anathema before, it cannot afford to now. (Concordia, unfortunately, doesn’t have anything like the prestige to consider such a move.)

Another small bit of good news: tiny 180-year-old Bishop’s University, in Sherbroooke, has been exempted from most of this madness — a sign, perhaps, that Quebec Premier François Legault and Education Minister Pascale Déry don’t actually want to destroy anglophone universities outright.

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But from there, we’re mostly back into bad news.

In what struck me as a very misguided gambit, last month the universities proposed the government back off the tuition increase in exchange for their bringing 40 per cent of their students up to a testable level of intermediate French. “Good idea,” the government basically responded, “but let’s make it 80 per cent.”

Whoops.

I wouldn’t bet on $12,000/80 per cent being the government’s final offer, but that’s what they’re calling it. And it’s easily as existential a threat to McGill and Concordia as the tuition hike, since it would require an extra semester for most students.

At least $12,000/80 per cent seems to have clarified things for McGill and Concordia and their supporters, though. They seem now to understand that they are in a proper war here, and that the aggressor isn’t interested in a negotiated settlement. Whatever semi-legitimate public-policy goals they might have — notably strengthening francophone universities, albeit at the expense of anglophone ones — weakening anglophone institutions is its own reward. They must respond with what strength they have.

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Quebec’s CAQ government’s bad faith always seemed obvious to me, the giveaway being the absolute incoherence of its reasoning. At one press conference this was all about about fairness to the francophone universities, especially since so many anglophone students leave the province after graduation. At the next press conference it was all about ridding Montreal of socially corrosive anglophones, as Heath alluded to. But hiking McGill’s and Concordia’s tuition wouldn’t do that. Rather, the existing pool of anglo students would be partially replaced with a different, wealthier and more foreign pool of anglo students.

For weeks, though, it seemed commentators and editorial writers and the universities themselves thought they might persuade the CAQ to back off. Are McGill and Concordia not valuable parts of Quebec society? Are anglophones not Quebecers too? Let’s be reasonable!

It was like watching a seal trying to persuade a killer whale that it’s not food. I have no reason to believe Legault and Déry aren’t fully on board, philosophically, with this campaign, but for them it’s also existential: They’re trying to save their political bacon from the PQ, and they’re happy to bust up what’s left of a decades-long linguistic detente in Quebec to get it done.

It’s tragic, and stupid, and pointless. But anglophone institutions won’t survive with their prestige intact, if at all, unless and until they get their elbows up and raise their fundraising game.

National Post

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