Researchers unpack claims English universities are overfunded and hurting French

“Ideological arguments underline what appears to be a conflation of two different problems: the chronic underfunding of the university system and the future of French in Quebec.”

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Are Quebec’s English universities overfunded and hurting the French language?

Two researchers took a deep dive into those questions, saying they wanted to “clarify potential sources of confusion.”

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Their eight-page research brief, published this week, “aims to give a full picture of the story, looking at published reports, statistics and other scholarly works,” one of the researchers, Shannon Bell, told the Gazette.

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“The idea is to look beyond any perceived framing and widen the lens, look at all the angles.”

Bell is a research associate at the Concordia-based Quebec English-Speaking Communities Research Network (QUESCREN). She wrote the brief with Patrick Donovan, an affiliate history professor at Concordia.

The two started on the brief before Premier François Legault’s government announced major funding changes in October that Concordia and McGill say could devastate their enrolment, finances and reputations.

Sherbrooke-based Bishop’s, Quebec’s third English university, is much smaller, has faced less criticism and was given a partial exemption to the reform.

Tuition for out-of-province students is being hiked by 33 per cent and the tuition structure for international students is being changed. The Coalition Avenir Québec government says the goal is to distribute more funding to French universities and reduce the impact of non-French-speaking students on Quebec’s majority language.

Quebec universities have long complained about chronic underfunding. The province’s tuition rate for local students is among the lowest in Canada but the lower tuition fees are not offset by public investment, Bell and Donovan note.

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“According to many researchers, the planned increase in tuition fees for out-of-province students at English-language universities will not solve the $1.25 billion underfunding of Quebec’s university system,” the researchers said in a press release. “What’s more, there are better ways to promote French.”

Here’s some of what the researchers found:

Out-of-province students

Since Quebec’s fees for out-of-province students previously reflected the Canadian average, some fear the tuition hike will price Concordia and McGill out of the market.

Without providing statistics, Quebec has suggested the increase will eliminate “a burdensome subsidization of out-of-province anglophones who come to Quebec to study and leave after graduation,” the researchers said.

However, they point to a Higher Education Strategy Associates analysis that found “a similar number of Quebec students profit from Ontario’s in-province tuition, so subsidies borne by Quebec for out-of-province students are offset by costs borne by Ontario for Quebec students.”

They add: “Ideological arguments underline what appears to be a conflation of two different problems: the chronic underfunding of the university system and the future of French in Quebec.”

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Provenance of students at Quebec universities local, out of province and international
Provenance of students at Montreal universities.

International students

The Coalition Avenir Québec government says English universities have benefited the most from the 2018 deregulation of foreign students. The change allowed universities to set their own rates for international students and keep all the revenue from this clientele, with the government no longer providing subsidies for these students.

The researchers note that “since English is the global lingua franca, (English) universities attract more international students and thus benefit more from this adjustment.”

However, ”it is incorrect to qualify this measure as ‘overfunding’ by the province since the extra revenue to English-language universities comes from international students themselves: they are proportionally more numerous in English-language universities and pay higher tuition. The province does not provide more funding per student to English-language universities.”

The researchers note “the government funds saved by the cancellation of foreign student subsidies were redirected to francophone universities to help bolster their international recruitment.” The proportion of international students at French-language universities is rising.

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‘Anglicization’ of Quebec

“The international student population is also a concern for those who worry about the ‘anglicization of Montreal,’” the researchers said.

“Critics point to research showing that the majority of Quebec’s international students enrolled in English-language universities are more likely to contribute to the English-speaking workforce if they stay. However, this same study also found three out of four Francophones working primarily in English had received their latest degree from a French-language institution.”

The researchers say more research is needed “to gauge how well international graduates know and use French outside work and the long-term intergenerational impact due to provincial language laws requiring most to send their children to French-language schools. In short, the impact of language of instruction and work on the vitality of French is not as direct as some assume.”

Linguistic ratios

According to a lawsuit filed by Concordia last week, Legault has privately complained that about 25 per cent of university students in Quebec attend English universities, whereas anglophone Quebecers represent about 10 per cent of the population.

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In their brief, the researchers said the use of “equity ratios” assumes that McGill, Concordia, and Bishop’s “exclusively serve the English-speaking population of Quebec.

“On the contrary, these universities operate in a network serving the broader Quebec population. A significant portion of professors and staff at English-language universities are francophone, and research networks are shared among the entire university network, regardless of mother tongue.”

With their large international student bodies, McGill and Concordia help “position Quebec as a global player in the same way that universities across the world offering instruction in English do not strictly serve English speakers in their countries: Maastricht University in the Netherlands and Hong Kong University are but two examples.”

Infrastructure

Last year, Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon accused the CAQ government of “directly financing Quebec’s anglicization.” He cited figures showing that Concordia and McGill will get 60 per cent of provincial university funding under Quebec’s 10-year infrastructure plan.

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The headline on a La Presse story about the issue: “$28,500 per McGill student, $357 per UQAM student.”

But the researchers noted most of the money McGill was getting was related to one project: the expansion of McGill onto the site of the former Royal Victoria Hospital. Quebec is contributing $620 million.

That renovation “is a particular case that needs to be looked at from a broader perspective,” the researchers note. “This non-recurring investment will restore major heritage buildings, projects of a type that often bear a hefty price tag. The plan also outlines renovations that offer benefits to all Montrealers, including the French-speaking majority, with, among others, new public green spaces on Mont Royal to replace unused parking lots.”

The researchers also point to government statistics from 2016 that indicate English-language campuses were in far greater need of repair than most French counterparts. Whereas 73 per cent of McGill buildings were in poor or very poor shape, at the Université du Québec network, most buildings were in good condition.

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Citing previous government infrastructure budgets, Bell and Donovan note that “the recent increase in funding to English-language universities follows years of lower funding.” In 2019-2020, for example, 100 per cent of infrastructure funding went to French universities.

Annual university infrastructure funding English vs French universities Quebec
Annual university infrastructure funding – English vs. French universities in Quebec.

Conclusion

The researchers ask whether higher education policy could promote and protect French “through effective francization measures in partnership with English-language institutions, while also supporting diverse and global student populations?”

They conclude: ”For the latter to happen, English-language universities need to be recognized as an asset to Quebec. Evidence would be reviewed to defuse claims of their being overfunded or detrimental to the French language. Infrastructure spending allotted to them would be analyzed with a broad view of Quebec society and of change over time, to catch sight of collective benefits.

“The English universities would be valued as points of entry to Quebec’s unique culture, where students can easily find resources to support integration, such as French language courses.

“Moreover, rather than being only recognized as linguistic community institutions representing and serving their respective, separate populations, universities both English and French would also be seen as parts of one Quebec system contributing to Quebec society and the economy as a whole.”

Founded in 2009, QUESCREN describes itself as “a collaborative network of researchers, stakeholders, and educational and other institutions that improves understanding of Quebec’s English-speaking communities and promotes their vitality.”

[email protected]

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