Quebec's English universities offer to help with 'francicizing' their students if tuition hike quashed

Calling it ‘a historic proposal,’ Bishop’s, Concordia and McGill ‘committed to being an ally in terms of francicizing the student population who don’t speak French on our campuses’

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With potentially devastating tuition changes hanging over their heads, the leaders of Quebec’s three English universities on Monday made what they call an unprecedented offer to help unilingual English students learn French.

Their overture came during a one-hour meeting with Premier François Legault and Higher Education Minister Pascale Déry in Montreal.

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Describing it as “a historic proposal,” Sébastien Lebel-Grenier, the principal of Bishop’s University, said Bishop’s, Concordia and McGill told Legault they are “committed to being an ally in terms of francicizing the student population who don’t speak French on our campuses.”

“We had a very frank exchange with Mr. Legault and we made certain proposals which are historic, which are unprecedented, and we are waiting for the government’s response,” McGill principal Deep Saini told reporters.

The Quebec government last month announced major tuition changes that are expected to cause big drops in enrolment and revenue for  Quebec’s three English universities — McGill, Bishop’s and Concordia. French universities are expected to see their revenue increase.

Under the changes, students from elsewhere in Canada will see their annual tuition jump from $8,992 to about $17,000. Under the new funding model, the government will also claw back more of the money international students pay to study in Quebec. English universities now collect the bulk of tuition from students from other countries.

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The Legault government says it wants to bolster francophone universities, complaining there are too many unilingual English-speaking students from other provinces studying at anglophone institutions.

In an interview with the Montreal Gazette after the meeting, Concordia president Graham Carr said the universities wanted “to present as a common front, as a united front, the willingness of the three English universities to do something quite unprecedented.”

The universities are eager to “work with the government to try to do even more than we’re already doing to protect and promote French in our institutions for the benefit of Quebec society,” Carr added,

Details were not immediately disclosed. 

But Carr said the proposal includes initiatives to help students from the rest of Canada who are in Quebec studying in English to “learn French or improve the French they already have.” The schools would also “better equip (students) to do work placements in Quebec” and “better prepare them for success in terms of qualifications for professional orders.”

The universities, Carr said, want “to make sure that more students coming from elsewhere feel integrated into Quebec society and linguistically proficient and therefore will decide to stay in Quebec after graduation and contribute in a beneficial way to the growth of the Quebec economy, the growth of the Montreal economy, and the development of Quebec society.”

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Monday’s meeting was held in Legault’s offices at Sherbrooke St. and McGill-College Ave., across from McGill’s campus in downtown Montreal. Legault’s headquarters are in a building that also houses several McGill offices, including its dentistry and psychology departments.

Lebel-Grenier said the government has promised to respond within a few days. Spokespeople for Legault and Déry did not respond to a request for comment from the Gazette.

When the tuition plan was announced on Oct. 13, the government said the aim was to funnel more money to French universities and to reduce the number of unilingual English students in Montreal.

On Friday, Legault went a step further, saying the aim is to cut enrolment at Concordia and McGill because those institutions are having an impact on the French language in Montreal.

Legault told reporters about one-quarter of university places in Quebec are currently in English institutions.

“So I think to be fair that we have to reduce this 25 per cent,” he said.

As for Bishop’s, Legault sounded open to a compromise. Located in Lennoxville, a borough of Sherbrooke, Bishop’s is the smallest of the English intitutions.

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“I don’t see much of a threat in Sherbrooke about French, so we may find other solutions for Bishop’s,” Legault said.

Saini has said Quebec’s tuition plan could lead to a major drop in enrolment at McGill, as well as a loss of up to $94 million in annual revenue and up to 700 job cuts. It could also compromise McGill’s infrastructure projects, put its music school in jeopardy and lead to the suspension of some varsity teams.

Carr has said the tuition overhaul could cost Concordia about $62 million, predicting up to 90 per cent of out-of-province students would no longer come to the university as a result of the hike.

At Bishop’s, Lebel-Grenier has said the university may not survive the loss of students from other provinces. They make up 30 per cent of Bishop’s student body.

Déry has portrayed English universities as a money pit for the Quebec government, while French Language Minister Jean-François Roberge has said their unilingual students represent a major threat to the French language.

Eric Girard, a McGill-trained economist who is Legault’s minister responsible for relations with the anglophone community, has offered a more nuanced message

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“My message is that these universities are our universities, they’re Quebec universities, they’re very important to the economy, to the social fabric,” he said last month. “They have concerns, and they’ve expressed them, and I understand that they’re currently in discussion with minister (Pascale) Déry.”

The tuition changes have been met with protests and have been heavily criticized by both English and French university officials and student associations.

The Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal and the Conseil du Patronat, representing 70,000 Quebec employers, have warned the tuition measures will exacerbate the province’s labour shortage and damage Montreal’s status as a university hub.

Last month, a coalition of people with ties to Bishop’s called on the Quebec government to exempt the 180-year-old Eastern Townships institution from the province’s tuition plan.

As of Monday afternoon, more than 12,000 people had signed a petition on the National Assembly website calling on Quebec to cancel the tuition proposal.

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