Things are getting interesting in Quebec. First Laval and now l’Université de Montreal are publicly threatening to leave the Conseil des Receteurs et Principaux des Universites du Quebec (CREPUQ). In the discreet and diplomatic world of Canadian University politics, this is like blowing a vuvuzela during a piano recital.
At one level, this is a delayed reaction to CREPUQ’s limp performance during last year’s tuition fee debate. At the outset, all institutions agreed to take a common position and speak through CREPUQ, a strategy fatally undermined by CREPUQ’s subsequent decision to spend the crisis hiding under a blanket. I don’t have any inside information, but reading between the lines, it seems that there was a split between the independent universities (McGill, Concordia, Bishop’s, Laval, Montreal, Sherbrooke) and the UQs, with the former mostly thinking the Charest government didn’t go far enough, and the latter – possibly with an eye on an incoming PQ government – being more ambivalent. The result was a deafening and damaging silence from the reform’s key beneficiaries.
The lesson Laval and Montreal seem to have taken from this is that CREPUQ and their UQ colleagues are no longer to be trusted. And so they are now out actively lobbying for a two-tier solution, which would promote their interests over those of the UQ system’s. Specifically, they are arguing for a two-tier tuition structure which would allow research-intensive institutions to charge a higher fee, while allowing the government to claim it is preserving access by giving students a low-fee option through the UQs.
I think there is some merit in a two-tiered solution. Clearly, a lot of (mainly francophone) students have made it known that they value cheap universities over good universities. So, fine, let those be the UQs. For everyone else, there’s a better-resourced solution, funded by fees rather than government.
But the specific details of the plan are a bit sketchy. First of all, the link between tuition and research is a bit ridiculous. What’s the value proposition: “pay us more, so we can pay less attention to you”? Even if it weren’t ridiculous, the idea that it would apply to just Laval, Montreal, McGill, and Sherbrooke is nuts. On any research measure other than, “do you have a medical school”, Concordia kicks Sherbrooke’s behind; for it not to be on that list is a transparent piece of linguistic politics and institutional snobbery.
If you’re going down the two-tiered road, it seems to me that there’s a logically solid case for restricting it to just two universities (McGill and Montreal, genuinely world-class and special) or expanding it to six by including all the “independent” universities (i.e. including Concordia and Bishop’s). Anything else seems arbitrary.