Pauline Marois’ PQ government surfed into power on a wave of angry students. Clamouring for the protection of accessible, high-quality education, many in the movement felt vindicated by the decree blocking planned increases in tuition. However, recent events suggest that the PQ’s commitment to their student constituents may not be as strong as could be expected. On December 6th, 2012, Education Minister Pierre Duchesne announced a wide range of budget cuts to the university sector, slashing over $124 million from post-secondary budgets across the province.
The cuts provoked a strong reaction across the Quebec academic community, with critical statements being issued by McGill and Université Laval. McGill Principal Heather Munroe-Blum has been particularly vocal, calling the cuts “draconian, unpredictable, [and] ineffective to running a quality-accessibility university system.”
Munroe-Blum has even called into question the feasibility of the cuts to begin with. “It is unrealistic to imagine that a top research-intensive university with a broad range of underfunded programs could make such cuts at all, to say nothing of doing so two-thirds of the way through its fiscal year,” she affirmed in an email to the McGill community.
Munroe-Blum’s statement highlights the fact that the cuts being imposed by Pauline Marois’ Parti Québécois government are extreme, not only monetarily, but also for the short timeframe in which they are being enacted. “McGill has been asked to cut around $19.1 million, approximately five percent of its budget, in four months,” said Economics and History Professor Philip Slavin in a recent interview with The Bull & Bear. “To make things even worse, we’re talking about retroactive cuts. All of a sudden, the University is in debt to the government because of spending expectations from the previous year.” Slavin, one of McGill’s most popular professors, was informed in late December that he will be let go by the University and will not be returning next school year.
“Instead of taking on the responsibility for the province’s horrible economic performance by increasing their own debt, the PQ has been trying to transfer this responsibility to the universities. In fact, this hurts McGill, in particular considering how we’ve always been underfunded compared to other Quebec universities.” Slavin is skeptical of this trend in funding. “What makes this especially irrational is how much McGill contributes to the Quebec economy: a recent study has shown that for each government dollar invested in McGill, the rate of return is thirteen dollars. The government could have put more thought into their funding decisions, but rational planning and the PQ do not seem to go hand in hand.”
Students who voted for the PQ because of their promise to cancel the tuition hikes have voiced their opposition to the cuts to university funding. Le Fédération Etudiante Universitaire du Québec (FEUQ), the province’s largest student group, is concerned by what the cuts could mean for the quality of education in Quebec universities. “We fear that the administrators might cut teaching, research or student services in order to balance their budgets,” said Yanick Grégoire, the Executive Vice-President of FEUQ. “These particular components are at the heart of the universities’ missions and should never be the targets of these cuts.”
“The PQ came to power on the promise to make students happier by freezing the tuition fees,” explains Professor Slavin. “Fair enough, that should have worked just fine. However, with the cuts, they have managed to achieve the exact opposite.” He elaborates on what this could entail for the student experience. “Before the cuts we were not doing too bad, even with the tuition freeze limiting revenue. However, what we will see now is an increase in the student-faculty ratio from about 16-to-1 to about 20-to-1, a drop in the quality of student services, and a sharp decline in course offerings,” he explains. “I don’t see how McGill can remain competitive with other top universities worldwide in such an environment.”
Slavin is particularly concerned about the impact of reduced course availability. “To me, I see this meaning that more students have to delay their graduation, spending more time and money on their education. All of a sudden students will have fewer courses open to them than they’ve ever had before, and in many cases the maximum capacity cannot be increased. Some students will have no choice but to wait another semester to take the last outstanding courses and finish their degree.”
In an attempt to absorb some of the burden, he has already agreed to increase the capacity in both of his upper-level classes far beyond what the assigned rooms would normally allow. “I ended up with insane numbers in both of my courses, but I think it would be unfair of me to prevent you guys from graduating on time.”