Summit countdown: T-minus 8 days 

By McGill Reporter Staff

Government-imposed cuts to universities’ operating budgets will have a profoundly detrimental impact on an education system already left vulnerable after years of underfunding, said university leaders at a press conference Friday, just 10 days before the much-debated summit on higher education to be held in Montreal Feb. 25-26.

A projected 1,400 employee layoffs across the Quebec university network, the elimination of certain student services, reduced course offerings, fewer funds for library acquisitions, and lengthy delays in purchasing vital laboratory equipment are just some of the negative consequences that would arise as a result of the $250-million in total budget cuts imposed over the next two fiscal years.

“These imposed cuts [will cause] severe and prolonged damage,” said Luce Samoisette, rector of the Université de Sherbrooke and President of the Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec (CREPUQ).

The press conference opened with Samoisette reading a prepared statement addressed to the Quebec public. She opened with a question – What kind of universities do we want for future generations? The question, Samoisette said, should lie at the core of any debate of higher education in the province and has guided the four pre-Summit meetings of university leaders.

“Quebec universities must be both accessible and of high quality – accessible because all Quebecers who have the ambition and capacity to attend university should be able to, and of high quality because the teaching they receive and the research they take part in must be of comparable quality to that which is found in the best universities in North America and the developed world,” said Samoisette.

CREPUQ proposed an alternative timeline to implement the budget cuts to the one laid down by the government. Because the respective fiscal years of the government and universities end one month apart, the rectors proposed using some of their government credits for 2014-2015 for the fiscal year 2013-2014, a move that would alleviate the burden on universities while allowing the government to meet its budgetary targets.

When asked if the rectors were willing to examine the way universities manage their money as readily as they were to look at government funding, Guy Breton, Rector of the Université de Montréal, said any discussions that would improve operations are welcome. “Yes, we are ready to look at [financial management] not because things aren’t being managed well, but because there are always ways to improve,” he said.

But Breton added that the chronic underfunding has left the Quebec university system in a vulnerable state. “In global terms, I think Quebec is getting an exemplary return on its investment in the university system when you compare us with the rest of the world. For each dollar invested, there is a very good return,” he said. “To the people of Quebec we are saying that we can’t continue to deliver such a high-quality product without the proper investment.”

In an interview following the press conference Michael Goldbloom, Principal of Bishop’s University, said the relatively new charge of universities being “overfunded” is surprising – especially since it is being leveled by groups who, in recent times, argued the opposite.

“If we go back two years, the Parti Québécois in opposition and the student organizations were all recognizing that our institutions were underfunded,” said Goldbloom. “Now, to see our student associations so focused on this one narrow issue of a tuition freeze or free tuition, and denigrating their institutions in order to achieve that – I think that’s really short-term thinking and it isn’t a positive step for them or for successive generations of students. The ultimate effect is to diminish the quality of education that our universities are able to provide.”

PGSS “disappointed” by student movement

Earlier in the week, the PGSS Council passed a resolution acknowledging that Quebec universities are indeed underfunded and that more financial support needs to be injected into the system.

The motion moves the Post Graduate Students’ Society some distance from the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ) to which it belongs. FEUQ has argued that universities have sufficient resources but are not managing those resources properly.

Jonathan Mooney, secretary-general of the PGSS, told The Reporter Friday the group undertook a large comparative study of the research produced so far on the question of whether Quebec’s universities are underfunded. This included a CREPUQ study that showed Quebec universities to be underfunded by some $800 million compared with their counterparts elsewhere in Canada.

That study of all the studies, Mooney said, concluded that Quebec universities are in fact underfunded and that the Quebec government needs to inject more money into the system.

Mooney said he’s been disappointed in the direction the student movement has taken its complaint with the government over support for university students and a tuition freeze or abolition of tuition.

“I find it troubling that the student movement has really attacked universities and attacked administrators,” over the last few months, he said. “They should be asking the government for more money. I’m disappointed that’s not happening.”

ASSE, the province’s largest student group, announced Thursday morning that it would boycott the upcoming summit because it felt the government was not prepared to seriously consider its demand for free tuition. Rather, ASSE leaders said, it appears the government has already decided how it will proceed on the volatile issue of tuition: by applying a policy of indexation, which would allow for small increases in keeping with the rate of inflation.

The current provincial government has already rolled back tuition increases imposed by the former Liberal government, but has stopped short of promising an outright freeze or abolition of tuition. Some have argued that indexing tuition to the rate of inflation is tantamount to a freeze.

ASSE has promised to hold a large demonstration on Tuesday, Feb. 26, the final day of the summit.

February 20, 2013