The Legault government’s decision to target Concordia and McGill universities with a 33 per cent tuition increase for out-of-province students is a direct attack on Montreal, Mayor Valérie Plante said Wednesday.
He urged the province to listen to one of its own advisory committees, which has spoken out against the measure.
Plante’s comments came as the two universities are grappling with a significant drop in applications due to rising enrollment.
“We certainly see it as a measure that directly attacks Montreal, and that’s not fair,” he told reporters, in his strongest criticism yet. “If Bishop’s doesn’t have this rule anymore, why does Montreal have it?”
Quebec has granted Sherbrooke-based Bishop’s, the smallest of the province’s three English universities, a partial exemption, allowing up to 825 students to pay the old fee.
The tuition increase, which only affects McGill and Concordia, is part of an effort by the Coalition Avenir Québec government to increase funding for French universities and reduce the number of non-French speakers in post-secondary institutions from Montreal.
Premier François Legault has said Bishop’s was excluded largely because the French are not in danger in Sherbrooke.
Plante said she agrees that “supporting French post-secondary establishments” is important, “but do we have to penalize English-speaking universities for that? My answer is: No, thank you.”
Plante said Montreal’s international reputation (and its local economy) are at stake. McGill and Concordia “contribute directly to the economic vitality of our downtown,” he said. Most university operations are located downtown.
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Plante’s comments came days after the Gazette revealed that a government-appointed advisory committee recommended Quebec scrap the plan.
The Comité consultatif sur l’accessibilité financière aux études questioned how the government came up with the new fee of $12,000 a year for out-of-province students (up from $8,992). He said the increase “seems unjustified and risks compromising access to quality education and depriving society of potential talent.”
Higher Education Minister Pascale Déry’s office says she will ignore the advice because it was delivered four days after the deadline set by the minister. Déry contacted the committee on December 15 and requested a response by January 15. The report was presented on January 19.
The committee, whose conclusions are not binding, is made up of several senior officials from French-language universities and CEGEP.
The missed deadline came even though an official in Déry’s ministry, Catherine Grétas, a senior bureaucrat focused on financial aid to students, sits on the committee as a non-voting member.
Plante noted that the committee received its mandate just before the Christmas and New Year holidays.
“I mean, it’s not easy to get everyone together during this period,” he said. “So I think the Quebec government should open up and say maybe we can accept the report and respond to it.”
McGill and Concordia say rising tuition, along with changes in funding for international students, could cost them tens of millions of dollars in revenue a year.
The deadline to apply for McGill’s fall 2024 semester was February 1.
Compared to previous years, there was a 22 per cent drop in applications from the rest of Canada and a seven per cent decline among international students, Fabrice Labeau, the school’s vice principal, said in an interview.
“I’m happy to say that even though we have a smaller pool, it’s a very high-quality pool of applicants,” he said.
It’s too early to know if enrollment will decline, he added. That will depend on how many people accept offers over the next few months and how many decide to drop out over the summer.
“We’re still under quite a bit of uncertainty,” Labeau said.
McGill has not increased tuition fees for international students. Labeau attributed the drop in applications among this group to the confusion and uncertainty created by the CAQ government.
Many potential foreign students thought their fees were doubling, while others were put off by the message the government sent: that non-French-speaking students “are not welcome in Quebec,” Labeau said.
“You can imagine it had a chilling effect on a lot of the enthusiasm around applying to McGill,” he said.
While international students are not seeing tuition increases, Quebec has decided to recoup $5,000 from each international student starting in the fall, Labeau said. He said the government has not made clear how that money will be distributed.
At Concordia, where the application deadline is March 1, there has been a 27 per cent drop for students from the rest of Canada and a 10 per cent drop for international students, said spokesperson Vannina Maestracci.
McGill and Concordia have created scholarships that could cancel out the trek for some students from the rest of Canada.
In Quebec, journalists asked Déry about the drop in applications at Concordia and McGill. He said he would wait to see the number of students accepted into the schools before commenting.