Schools need help

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McGill Reporter
January 29, 2000 - Volume 32 Number 09
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Schools need help

| Montreal's cash-starved universities are losing more and more students to institutions in Ontario and the United States because they offer higher-quality teaching and better resources, says the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal.

In a report released late last week, entitled Striving for more dynamic universities in Montreal, the board calls for better-funded and more competitive universities that reflect the needs of the marketplace.

"Our universities are no longer able to compete effectively with other institutions in Canada and the United States," Board of Trade president Pierre Laferrière said in a statement.

The report blames a lack of awareness of the skills that students need in the job market, administrative structures that prevent universities from reacting quickly to changes in the marketplace, inadequate funding and frozen tuition fees.

"We can't simultaneously tighten funding and freeze tuition without mortgaging our universities' ability to adapt to an increasingly demanding marketplace," the report says.

To make Montreal's four universities more competitive the board recommends that government funding be restored to 1994-1995 levels, that tuition fees be increased, that each institution develop specific areas of expertise and that the government's funding formula be at least partly based on performance.

Government funding for universities has decreased by 22 per cent in the last five years, while enrolment has only decreased by 4.2 per cent.

Since tuition fees haven't increased, that means total government revenues per student have dropped from $11,286 to $9,550.

This compares with $13,500 for those in Ontario and $15,000 for Americans. The Quebec government should increase funding and match revenues per student with those of Ontario in the next three years, according to the report.

Quebec students, who have the best loans and bursaries program in the country, pay about 18 per cent of the cost of their studies, compared with 31per cent in the rest of Canada and 33 per cent at public universities in the U.S. And, on average, university graduates will earn more money than the general population that finances education through its taxes, the report says.

The Quebec government should increase tuition fees to match the Canadian average within three years. To that end, each institution should be allowed to determine its own fee structure and students should get more time to repay their student loans, so that none are denied access to a university education for financial reasons.

The Board of Trade thinks another way to improve the quality of university education in Montreal is to have institutions differentiate themselves from one another by concentrating on developing the specialties for which they are already best known. It doesn't want universities to develop monopolies in specific disciplines, it specifies.

The structure of universities prevents them from making quick changes to programs and curricula to keep pace with quickly evolving sectors. Consequently, the quality of teaching lags behind, says the report.

A performance-based funding formula would reward universities that are doing well and motivate the others to examine their approach and review programs. The government should also introduce a measure that encourages universities to better meet the needs of their student clientele as well as the needs of the marketplace that will supply jobs to those students once they graduate.

In a letter to Laferrière about the report, Principal Bernard Shapiro wrote, "I subscribe to the general thesis of the report that 'If our universities cannot be competitive...our best will leave, taking with them research budgets, skills and know-how.'"

Shapiro supported the call for higher tuition fees and the recognition that the availability of bursaries and loans for students is a better lever for accessibility than low tuition fees. "I am adamant that no competent student should ever be deprived access to a university education due to a lack of funding," Shapiro wrote.

With regard to the report's call for performance-based funding for universities, Shapiro responded, "I concur with the statement of my colleague, Robert Lacroix, rector of Université de Montréal, that performance evaluation is needed 'provided that it is tied to a definition of each university's particular mission.'"

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