Cry of alarm from CUP

BRONWYN CHESTER | When the Commission des universités sur les programmes began its examination of all Quebec university programs two years ago, some feared it would be just another nail in the cofn of institutes of higher education.

But, two thirds of the way through their analyses, the commission has concluded that the province's universities are largely exemplary in their use of scarce resources and, in many cases, will need increased funding if Quebec is to maintain its desired level of teaching, research and accessibility.

That was the conclusion made two weeks ago by CUP president Michel Gervais when the interim report was made public at a press conference. Reading from the document, the former rector of Laval University issued a cry of alarm: "The drastic budgetary cuts in recent years are imperilling the capacity of Quebec universities to offer good programs mainly because of the draconian reduction of professors and the inability of most institutions to renew their scholars."

Quebec lost 10% of its university teachers between 1994 and 1998, he noted, the equivalent (913) of the entire professoriate of UQAM.

To the commonly held perception that there is much duplication of programs among universities -- must every university have a physics, geography or French literature program? -- the report replies that no two programs are ever identical and interchangeable and, given the size of Quebec and the province's commitment to have universities in the regions (the raison d'être of the Université du Québec network), it is inevitable that many universities will have some disciplines in common.

Associate vice-principal (academic) Nick de Takacsy, part of the 17-member CUP, also draws attention to the fact that some programs may share a name but little else in terms of content. Both Concordia and McGill universities have graduate programs in communications, for instance, but the latter is largely conceptual while the former has a more practical orientation, he notes.

The commission has been appreciative of the value of differences in programs in the same discipline and in being able to offer choice to students, says de Takacsy. Both UQAM and the Université de Montréal, for instance, have a program in French literature but, concludes the report, "their different and complementary approaches contribute to the intellectual richness of the field."

De Takacsy lauds the work of the commission for its attempts to find creative solutions to the particularities of different universities. In his own field, physics, for instance, the CUP recommended that the four Montreal-area university departments offer the final year of the physics undergraduate program together so as to have a strong offering of teachers and research in various aspects of physics. McGill, for instance, is strong in particle theory, while U de M's strength lies in astrophysics.

"It's worthwhile investing in that, even though there are not many students in the field, because Quebec physics rates very high on a world scale," he says, adding that when you have a larger pool of teachers it liberates some from teaching thereby creating more time for research.

He notes, however, that the physics departments in Montreal have done little to move on the recommendation. For one, there is the question of territoriality or not wanting to share students, labs or equipment. And there are also the logistics of distance between institutions and the division of funds and the lack of people to manage the process. "We [in physics] are not moving very fast because there is no structure in place to help the process," says de Takacsy.

Language too enters the equation when a unilingual anglophone comes to McGill to study physics and finds she can only take astrophysics in French.

Still, de Takacsy is confident that universities will make the necessary adjustments in order to survive and thrive. And he believes that the consultative process used by the commission respects the way universities have traditionally dealt with changing times.

"It allows the system to play out its hand just as it always has. We have a very good system and it is not because government or business said slash this or that."

The commission, created by the Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec to "examine the pertinence and complementarity of university programs," and funded by the Ministry of Education, will complete its remaining nine of 23 reports on university programs by year's end.