Higher Education Strategy Associates

When Should McGill Go Private?

With the election of a PQ government which is unwilling to sanction tuition fee increases and too broke to actually spend any more money on PSE, there’s one debate which is sure to arise soon: when and under what conditions should McGill leave the public sector and go it alone as a private university?

In a sense, of course, McGill has always been private. It was not founded by an act of the legislature, but rather as a charitable enterprise (technically, it’s the Royal Society for the Advancement of Learning). Its governing body is totally autonomous of government and it is only considered “public” because it accepts government rules in exchange for public funds.

For the past fifty years, those rules have proved a bargain for McGill (and similar institutions such as Laval, Bishop’s, etc), but they may not remain so indefinitely. One of the primary purposes of the public funding rules is precisely to limit total institutional income, by limiting the amount of tuition fees any institution can get. At the moment, the government hands over about $329 million per year; $272 million of which comes from formula funding, with the rest mostly coming in the form of research funding of various type (which in theory at least might continue even if McGill were private).

So let’s look at that $272 million for a moment, because that’s the key figure: could McGill ditch it and replace the revenue with tuition dollars?

Well, first, by going private McGill would immediately recoup $85 million in various forms of income which the government currently skims. At the moment, McGill is not allowed to keep all the extra revenue it collects from “out of province” students, nor is it allowed to keep all its revenue from its international students. So, right away, the amount that needs recouping is not $272 million but $187 million.

Now, let’s take all those Canadian students and boost their tuition to the Ontario average of tuition and fees (which is currently sitting a little under $8,000). For its roughly 10,000 Quebec undergraduates, that would mean a jump per year of about $4,200; for its 7,000 non-Quebec students it’s about $500. In total, that’s $46 million. Do the same for grad students and you’re looking at another $10 million. Take the professional programs such as law, medicine and dentistry, and line their tuitions up with those at U of T and you get another $20 million.

Add all that up and what you find is that simply by adopting an Ontario tuition structure, McGill can recoup $161 million of the $272 million it gets for teaching from the Quebec government. Where could it get the rest? Tune in tomorrow.

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