The Quebec Government’s Plan to Kill English Universities

The provincial party’s most radical base will be satisfied only if English-speaking institutions disappear from Montreal’s landscape

A dark, wide-shot photo of students walking in front of McGill University’s Arts Building in the afternoon.
(The Walrus / Wikimedia Commons)

McGill University has been an integral part of Montreal’s landscape since its founding in 1821, but more than 200 years and twelve Nobel laureates later, the possibility of moving some of its operations out of Quebec now looms over the world-class institution.

The potential relocation is just one of many options being considered by the university as it begins to feel the impact of tuition hikes recently announced by the province’s ruling Coalition Avenir Québec government. Canadian students would go from paying approximately $9,000 to around $17,000, starting in the fall of 2024, while international students will pay a minimum of $20,000. Education minister Pascale Déry insists the new measures, which could cost universities tens of millions of dollars annually in decreased enrolment, are needed to help rebalance a university network the CAQ sees as favouring the English-language system.

For Quebec’s English speakers, this feels like déjà vu. The announcement, last October, that out-of-province students would see their annual tuition fees double comes on the heels of repeated government efforts to chip away at the English community’s long-standing academic institutions. This includes last year’s attempt to abolish school boards, undermining English CEGEPs (basically, colleges), and creating chaos and confusion by proposing new language requirements and a freeze on enrolment. Even though the number of Quebec children attending school in French has grown in Quebec over the past two decades, thanks in part to Bill 101, English-language CEGEPs and universities are increasingly popular with Quebec francophones and allophones, leading to the fear that these institutions are being scapegoated by this government because of that popularity.

They’re probably right. The right-of-centre government is led by a nationalist party hyper-focused on the survival of francophone Quebecers as an ethnic group. It practises an isolationist brand of politics, displaying clear favouritism for the French majority to the detriment of the rest of Quebec society, especially immigrants. After Bill 96, the recent legislation seeking to protect and promote the French language, was passed in 2022, many Quebecers had a much harder time accessing government services in English. Several lawsuits have since been launched against the law.

Still, the CAQ forges ahead. The approach has won them elections and kept their approval high. To stay relevant, however, this approach requires them to keep finding new enemies. And that currently means treating out-of-province Canadian students as foreigners—as if their parents haven’t also paid into a federal system that substantially funds Quebec educational institutions. The hikes also treat Canadian students as “cheap” opportunists, even though, with the exception of law and medicine, it already costs out-of-province students more to study in Quebec than elsewhere in the country. Refusing to fund students from other Canadian provinces also ignores the pesky fact that thousands of Quebecers are currently studying in other Canadian universities, subsidized by their provincial governments. The CAQ doesn’t care about pesky facts. It cares about votes. By their logic, having fewer non-Quebec students will reduce the amount of English spoken in Montreal. So: win-win.

The logic is spectacularly ill-conceived. The tuition hikes disproportionately affect English-language universities since they typically receive more out-of-province students—and far more international students—than their French counterparts. But instead of adequately funding Quebec universities, the government wants to implement a system where French-language universities will become more dependent on the ability of their English-language counterparts to recruit Canadian and international students while simultaneously undermining the latter’s ability to do so. In short, the government argues it can increase revenue for French-language universities despite reducing enrolment in English-language institutions. It’s not surprising Quebec’s academic and business communities have sounded the alarm.

The province’s three English-language universities (McGill, Concordia, and Bishop’s) have warned that the hikes could irreparably damage their financial health and competitiveness. For many of Quebec’s language zealots who see the mere presence of English as compromising the survival of French, this isn’t a threat but a welcome outcome. Bishop’s—the smallest of the three—has stated that tuition hikes would be “catastrophic” for its survival since 30 percent of its student body is comprised of out-of-province students. McGill has announced an immediate hiring freeze, while Concordia is cutting overall spending by 7.8 percent, including freezing executives’ salaries.

Quebec’s English-language universities presented to the government a variety of interesting counter offers and possible solutions enabling them to remain viable, one of them being tiered tuition rates, with out-of-province Canadians studying arts, education, and science paying $9,000, and all the way up to $20,000 for medicine, pharmacy, and law programs, while aiming to ensure at least 40 percent of non-French-speaking undergraduate students would acquire intermediate French by the time they graduate. Proposals the government failed to acknowledge publicly.

Instead, as La Presse reported, it decided to ram through tuition hikes while doubling the universities’ proposed percentage of students who would be required to learn intermediate French to 80 percent. In other words, it imposed on out-of-province students both higher tuition and unrealistic language requirements. “If a government were trying to devise a plan to starve Quebec’s English-language universities out of existence, it would look a lot like this,” said Eva Ludvig, president of the Quebec Community Groups Network, an English-speaking advocacy group.

While Déry has claimed that Quebec provides approximately $100 million annually in subsidies for out-of-province students in Canada, a McGill analysis says that number is closer to half that amount. More importantly, the minister’s claim ignores the substantial contributions out-of-province and international students make to Montreal’s and, by extension, Quebec’s economies. For example, the president of Montreal’s Chamber of Commerce assesses the contributions of those students to be about $520 million to the city’s annual economy, not including tuition. What the CAQ says it hopes to gain is a fraction of what Montreal stands to lose in economic benefits if enrolment were to drop substantially.

The potential fallout isn’t simply economic. Many worry about the impact that the CAQ’s attempts to discourage non-francophones from coming to Quebec may have on the province’s reputation as a welcoming place to outsiders. How many students come here and end up falling in love with both the French language and the culture? Many of these former Haligonians, Bostonians, or New Yorkers build lives here, learn French, raise families, and create businesses. It’s that kind of magic the government is messing with right now.

Faced with pushback, the government has backtracked and, according to La Presse, may implement a 33 percent increase for out-of-province students rather than doubling fees. But that still might not be enough to rectify the damage done. In response to the news, credit agency Moody’s has placed the credit ratings for McGill and Concordia “under review for downgrade,” and both universities have seen a drop in applications compared to last year.

For Quebec to lose any part of McGill would be a colossal mistake, but one solely caused by this government’s myopic populist politics and premier François Legault’s insistence on playing to his party’s most radical base, which—one suspects—would be satisfied only if English institutions were to completely disappear from Montreal’s landscape. But the negative effects could be felt far beyond Quebec. Not only do Quebec’s English-language universities provide a bridge for connection and understanding with the rest of the country and the world but a successful higher education network relies on a culturally and linguistically diverse university ecosystem. Homogeneity isn’t a desired aim when it comes to academic research, even if this parochial government seems to consider it to be a political goal.

Quebecers find themselves paying an increasingly heavy price for a government that’s been far more focused on language politics than fixing long-standing issues ailing the province’s education and health care sectors. As the CAQ’s popularity plummets, the premier should be careful of the law of unintended consequences. Poorly constructed decisions which needlessly kneecap institutions that inject hundreds of millions into the economy and help put Montreal and Quebec on the map may prove a self-inflicted injury the province may never recover from.

Toula Drimonis
Toula Drimonis is a Montreal-based journalist, writer, and news producer. Her first book, We, the Others: Allophones, Immigrants, and Belonging in Canada, was released in 2022. She will be demystifying Quebec’s politics, language, and social issues as a contributing writer for The Walrus.