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Quebec should move toward the Canadian model of higher education

Before it began, many observers had predicted that Quebec's higher education summit would fail. Any ideas about the future of our universities would be pre-empted by our eternal squabble over tuition fees. And indeed, the decision to index fees – 3 per cent a year – has made headlines.

I participated in the Summit just the same. Higher education is too important an issue not to join the debate – especially because I represent Canada's second largest university and the foremost research institution in Quebec, one of the five most active research universities in the country.

The fact that higher education issues have repeatedly made Quebec headlines in recent months reflects how important they are to the future of our society. It also reveals that the time has come for our province to rethink its model of higher education. And in higher education, as in all public policies, we must favour models that match our values and our ability to pay.

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This is why I propose we keep the innovative and relevant aspects of our current model, such as CEGEPs and our generous loans and bursaries program, and that we try to move toward the Canadian model with regards to funding, recognizing that different universities have different missions, and support for research.

Four major themes were up for discussion during this Summit.

Quality: The government just announced that it will be creating a Council to exercise quality control over academic programs. We certainly hope that it will be an independent council. As all serious studies show, the more autonomous universities are, the better they fulfill their twofold mission of teaching and research. This doesn't absolve us from the need for co-ordination between institutions and joint assessment of programs, especially in a small network like ours here in Quebec. This council of universities should also have a mandate to operate a database on academic institutions and monitor higher education and research worldwide to help our network hold its front-line position on major developments.

Accessibility: The Quebec model of access to postsecondary studies is a failure. At present, twice as many students from disadvantaged backgrounds in Ontario are attending university, compared to young people in Quebec. There may be many reasons why poor and geographically diversified sectors are under-represented in our universities. But one thing is certain: Depleting universities' resources is no incentive for our neediest students to pursue their education.

Governance and funding: Most agreed that more money is needed, and a recent poll showed that most Quebeckers think that we should raise tuition fees. During the Summit, and the months leading up to it, I have put forward the idea that it's unfair that a future doctor should pay the same tuition as a future primary schoolteacher. Even if this idea of differential tuition scales has been rejected by the government, I still think we will have to take a cold, hard look at it in the near future. Quebec universities are the only ones in North America without differential tuition scales based on the cost of training or the student's future earning potential, or both. Of course, this approach should be matched by reform of financial aid for those students who truly need it. In fact, the entire financial aid program should be revised – including, I might add, fee scales for students from other provinces and foreign students as well.

Contribution: Every year, Université de Montréal awards diplomas to over 11,000 students in every major field of human endeavour. This is the main contingent, by far, of graduates in Quebec, and we most certainly feel it's the key contribution we make to the progress of society at a time when our province urgently needs qualified people in a host of fields – health care, primary and secondary education, the public service, businesses of every conceivable size and, not least of all, research and development.

Perhaps a less apparent input by the Université de Montréal is its contribution to science. That Montreal is the leading research centre among cities in Canada is due in large measure to the UdeM. And as all research is, in a sense, exploration, I would like all of Quebec to actively support us in this adventure, just as we support Quebec in pursuit of a more progressive, just and well-informed world.

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This brings me to the delicate question of different missions for different universities. Some have suggested that we ought to be looking at a two-tier system of research universities on one hand and, on the other, first-cycle undergraduate schools serving a primarily social purpose. This is a red herring. All universities conduct research, though some may do so more intensively than others.

The problem is that we're blurring the very real differences that exist between one school and another. Only here, in fact, do people speak of "the universities" as if they form a distinct educational pool or sector. In the United States, when people speak of "universities" they mean Harvard, or Boston University, or Yale or UCLA.

Every university institution has its own special features and fields of excellence. We don't need a two-speed vehicle for some and a one-speed vehicle for others. We need a 21-speed racing machine everyone can use to help them get to where they're going! And that's going to take real resources.

Dr. Guy Breton is rector of the Université de Montréal.

Higher Learning looks at the trends, experiments and debates behind the education headlines.

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