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Quebec universities strike back in wake of funding cuts

The McGill campus

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Quebec's university leaders are mounting new resistance to $124-million in unexpected cuts to higher-education funding that left gaping holes in their budgets and precious little time to fill them.

On Monday, rectors and principals reiterated their "great anxiety" over the damage they fear will be inflicted by the government's cuts. Speaking through the Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec (CREPUQ), they also reacted skeptically to Higher Education Minister Pierre Duchesne's vague assertion last week that there might be $696-million in new funds for higher education by 2018-19.

The bulk of the backlash is coming from two established post-secondary leaders. Laval University rector Denis Brière posted an online petition Friday, asking members of the university and the public to voice their support, while 17 of his deans signed a letter demanding Mr. Duchesne reconsider the cuts. The same day, McGill University principal Heather Munroe-Blum circulated a freshly passed motion from McGill's board of governors insisting that the "excessive and injurious" cuts be rescinded.

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Quebec universities' initial response after learning of the cuts on Dec. 4 was muted, as they scrambled to survey the financial fallout. But they're growing more vocal, hoping to win support from the general public, which was divided over the hugely controversial tuition-fee increases that the newly elected Parti Québécois cancelled soon after taking power.

"It looks as if what they're trying to do is download some of the deficit onto the universities, which is pretty difficult to swallow when they also control the amount of revenue we can raise through tuition fees," McGill board chair Kip Cobbett said in an interview. "It's pretty tough to dig your way out of a hole if you don't have a shovel."

The government maintains everyone has to do their part to tackle a deficit inherited from Jean Charest's Liberals. Universities counter that they were given no notice of the cuts, and the target is practically impossible to meet with four months left in their fiscal year, as most spending is tied up in salaries and contracts. Ramping up their own debts may be the only answer, schools say: McGill already expected a $7-million deficit for 2012-13, and stands to have another $19.5-million cut.

"In a world where other jurisdictions are increasing their investments in research, where knowledge and discovery drive the strength of nations, Quebec's investments in universities are dimishing," Ms. Munroe-Blum wrote to staff and students.

Meanwhile, student groups worry the cuts may threaten student services and financial aid, or even leave them with larger class sizes – though they have yet to mobilize in any significant way against the government's austerity demands.

A spokesman for Mr. Duchesne, Joël Bouchard, said, "We understand that what we are asking is difficult," and that the minister is discussing with universities how they will manage. But, he added, "we have no room to manoeuvre on this."

Mr. Bouchard also said the $696-million is the extra sum universities would have received by 2019 "had the Liberal tuition fee hikes been implemented," and that "this amount will be handed over to the universities over the coming years." Exactly how has yet to be discussed ahead of February's summit on higher education.

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University officials will participate in February's gathering, but some are now echoing student leaders who question the government's motives.

"One wonders why we're having these kinds of decisions being made before the summit is even held," Mr. Cobbett said.

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About the Author
Banking Reporter

James Bradshaw is banking reporter for the Report on Business. He covered media from 2014 to 2016, and higher education from 2010 to 2014. Prior to that, he worked as a cultural reporter for Globe Arts, and has written for both the Toronto section and the editorial page. More

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