Quebec universities at a crossroads
With ten days remaining until the Summit on Higher Education, the heads of all Quebec universities issue the following message to the people of Quebec.
1 – Universities are so essential to Quebec’s development that the very future of the province is now at stake.
What kind of universities do we want for future generations? That is the main question to be debated as we approach the Summit on Higher Education. University rectors and principals have suggested a number of responses in our extensive contributions at the four preparatory meetings. We have continued to repeat that, in our opinion, a university education in Quebec must be both accessible and of high quality: accessible, because every Quebecer with the desire and ability should be able to attend university; and high quality, because university teaching and research must be comparable to that available in the best universities in North America and the developed world.
2 – The issue at the heart of the events that have rocked Quebec for the last year is restoring the kind of funding that will make it possible for universities to meet the needs and expectations of society. The debate over how to do this has monopolized attention for a whole year. It is high time that we get back to basics: rapid investment in our universities is essential so that they may properly fulfil their teaching and research mission and fully contribute to Quebec’s development.
Quebec universities are expected to perform as well as universities in the rest of Canada, but year after year, for 15 years, we have received less money per student to fund teaching operations than those other universities we are supposed to equal.
The government of Quebec must decide how to ensure this reinvestment.
3 - Quebec’s university system cannot absorb the $250 million in cutbacks imposed this year and next year without seriously impairing its ability to fulfil its mission. It will take years to recover from the damage caused by these cutbacks.
The $250 million in cutbacks over two years is another blow on top of the chronic underfunding problem. The government is proposing to begin reinvesting in the universities starting in fiscal 2014-2015. It thus recognizes the need for a significant injection of additional resources. However, the cutbacks required in the meantime will have severe and prolonged consequences.
The government has authorized the universities to transfer 50% of the cutbacks to the deficit. But whether the axe falls now or later, it will still cause considerable damage:
• Since 80% of the universities’ operating budget is spent on compensation (salaries and benefits), the cutbacks will mean hiring delays, unfilled positions and layoffs in all employment categories, for a total of about 1,400 jobs across the board.
• The reduction, and possibly the elimination, of some services, such as health services, psychosocial services, employment assistance, international mobility, and support services for students in financial need.
• Reduced education and training support for professors.
• A significant reduction in the number of spring and summer courses in some universities.
• Reduced institutional grant funds.
• Reduced acquisition of library documents, furniture and equipment.
• Delay in the acquisition of laboratory and IT materials.
• Reduced library hours.
• Delay in maintenance projects and worsening of the facility condition index.
• Cuts in janitorial services.
The university rectors and principals are well aware of Quebec’s financial situation. Under the circumstances, we are proposing that the government adopt an approach that will allow it to achieve its objective of a balanced budget in 2013-2014 while reducing the negative impact on universities.
The government budget period ends in March, whereas the university budget period ends in April. The government should allow the universities to use $125 million of the 2014-2015 government credits in April 2014 to compensate for the cutbacks required in 2013-2014. This would allow the government to meet its budget target in 2013-2014, while returning the universities to a sound financial footing in the same year. The credit allocated to the universities in subsequent years could then be adjusted to maintain the announced reinvestment plan.
4 - Quebec university participation in the Summit on Higher Education
Quebec’s universities have made significant contributions to the four preparatory meetings, presenting a substantial brief each time. We will attend the Summit in the hope of participating in constructive conversation on the role of universities in society and the means to support them in fulfilling that role.
The following is the universities’ position on various topics that have been discussed since the start of the preparatory meetings:
The universities favour the adoption of a provincial policy on universities and we intend to contribute fully in developing one. Note that the policy adopted in 2000 had set clear objectives for the universities, in particular with regard to accessibility and presence in Quebec, which the universities have met.
The universities propose that all concerned parties agree on university enrolment targets for Quebec.
We support the intention expressed by the Minister of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology to streamline accountability mechanisms and make them more efficient. We are in favour of pursuing efforts to identify strategic performance indicators that would allow for even more transparent accounting of access to university, the quality of teaching and research, and sound management.
With regard to governance, Quebec universities intend to continue applying best practices. We also insist on the importance of recognizing the essential role of university boards of directors, whose authority must be neither reduced nor diluted.
With regard to research, the universities restate the urgency of implementing the new provincial policy on research and innovation and hope that the April sessions of the Research Summit will accelerate this process.
With regard to financing, Quebec universities refuse to be associated with any solution that does not lead to increased funding from whatever sources may be available.
On the subject of a formula for university funding, the rectors and principals have indicated many times that they are open to discussing the matter, but we emphasize that the fundamental problem of underfunding will not be solved simply by a new formula, and the government must proceed quickly with reinvestment, without waiting for work on the new formula to be completed.
The university heads recognize the usefulness of an independent, autonomous body to reflect on, study and analyze the situation of Quebec universities, and advise both government and the universities. In fact, we have already proposed the creation of such a body in a detailed document submitted at the first preparatory meeting on the quality of education.
However, the universities could not support the creation of any organization whose mandate would allow it to control university development or encroach on the responsibilities of university boards of directors, which include administrators, professors, representatives of other university personnel, students and members of society at large.
Quebec universities are heir to a centuries-old tradition based on three founding principles: university autonomy, academic freedom and collegiality. The purpose of these principles is to protect universities from all undue influence and allow them to develop in accordance with best academic, governance and management practices. These principles make it possible for universities to remain a place for the independent, critical thinking that is essential to any free and democratic society. The only authority that may intervene legitimately to guide their development is a democratically elected government. The government of Quebec cannot and must not discharge itself of that responsibility.
In the first preparatory document for the Summit, the Ministry of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology called the Summit “a new departure, a renewed commitment to our higher education system, inspired by values such as equality of opportunity, excellence, the common good and responsible governance.”
The Minister invites us to engage in “a real exercise in discussion, in a spirit of respect and thoroughness, on a single theme: making higher education a collective priority.”
The rectors and principals of Quebec universities are fully committed to this objective.