"Financially, it would be catastrophic": A university principal on Quebec’s tuition hikes

Sébastien Lebel-Grenier, principal and vice-chancellor at Bishop’s University, says that Bishop’s could lose 90 per cent of its out-of-province students—forcing the university to slash a quarter of its budget
Alex Cyr
Photo illustration_Maclean’s

In October, the government of Quebec announced it would increase university tuition for out-of-province Canadian students from $8,992 to $17,000, with the goal of promoting the French language by allowing universities to invest the extra money into their courses and programs. But many members of the province’s academic community fear that these soaring fees will turn students away.

Quebec’s English-language universities in particular, who rely most on out-of-province enrolment, worry that their student bodies will dwindle and that their finances will become unmanageable. Here, Sébastien Lebel-Grenier, principal and vice-chancellor at Bishop’s University—an English-first school in Quebec’s Eastern Townships—reflects on what will happen if his institution loses most of its out-of-province learners and shares how he and other academic leaders are urging the government to drop the proposed policy.

Bishop’s University has a student population of 2,650. How many of these students come from other Canadian provinces? 

Over the last 10 years, about 29 per cent of our students have come from other provinces. That is by far the highest proportion of out-of-province students in all Quebec universities. For comparison: 20 per cent of McGill students and 10 per cent of Concordia students come from elsewhere.

How did you react when the Quebec government proposed in October to raise student tuition from $9,000 to $17,000 for out-of-province Canadian students?  

I’m quite worried, along with our entire academic community at Bishop’s. Based on the feedback from prospective, current and past students, that these new tuition costs would cause us to lose at least 90 per cent of our out-of-province students. In financial terms, that would be catastrophic. 

More importantly, this would be an attack on the identity of our institution. For 180 years, Bishop’s University has welcomed a diverse student body. Now, I am already hearing stories about young learners from Ontario and beyond rethinking their post-secondary plans, parents wanting to send their kids to institutions more affordable to them, and even Indigenous students choosing to study elsewhere due to political issues related to provincial borders that they do not consider their own. 

Apart from a whopping number of students, what else does Bishop’s stand to lose? 

We’ve estimated that this tuition increase would force us to slash a quarter of our budget. Universities run on paper-thin margins, so that is huge—perhaps unmanageable. If this proposal becomes reality, we’d be forced to have difficult discussions around what can go on and what cannot. I don’t want to speculate on what we would cut if this were to happen. 

We have strong programs that are bolstered by our students’ diversity. Budget cuts notwithstanding, these would struggle. We have a new and thriving musical theatre program filled by people coming from all over Canada. Its 100-person choir puts on shows in Lennoxville (where Bishop’s is located) and the surrounding anglophone communities in the Eastern Townships. 

We also have a roster of 10 sports teams, with more than 50 per cent of the athletes coming from out of province. I don’t know what would happen to our teams if most of those athletes chose to attend a school in another province for much cheaper. Would we have to cut a team? And how would that affect the league? 

In academics, how would a dearth of out-of-province recruiting affect our renowned astrophysics department, which continuously publishes cutting-edge research written by both Quebec-born and out-of-province students? Losing any of that would be a huge blow.

Bishop’s takes pride in the fact that its student body comes from many backgrounds. How will this affect that self-image?

The message that comes with this new proposed policy runs against our beliefs. It screams, “Anglophones are not welcome in Quebec.” That is tremendously disappointing, because we’ve worked so hard to dispel those ideas about our province. And I know it represents a flagrant disconnect with the lived experience of our anglophone students on campus, who are cherished by our local communities. 

This policy, if it passes, would take effect in 2024. A petition to cancel this tuition increase has already gathered more than 15,000 signatures. Are you fighting the policy? 

Yes. Bishop’s, Concordia and McGill have offered to act as an ally to the provincial government and promote the French language by offering more French courses—all in exchange for the cancellation of this tuition increase. We hope they consider this proposal and find a solution that is favourable for us, and for all of Quebec. We’ve been in communication with the premier and ministers’ offices, which have said our proposal is being discussed, but that no decisions have been made yet. 

Premier François Legault said the motive to raise tuition was to protect the French language.  

The provincial government has admitted that Bishop’s itself is not a threat to the vitality of the French language in the Eastern Townships. English- and French-speaking communities around here are intertwined: a third of our students are francophones (I am one myself), and many anglophones come from other provinces with a curiosity about Quebec culture and French language. 

Many of these people love their experience, stay in Quebec and become fluent in French, strengthening and enriching the francophone community. We have been around for 180 years, and French has thrived throughout these years: in fact, the anglophone communities around the university have been declining in numbers.

I can appreciate the motivation to preserve culture and language, but what might happen if Bishop’s, along with every Quebec university, begins to lose out on talent?

If talented students decide it’s too expensive to come and study in Quebec, this will hurt not only our universities, but our society. Quebec has a labour shortage, and we need talent. If our provincial government is interested in decreasing the wealth gap between Quebec and Ontario, it must consider that we need to attract talent and make sure that every member of society feels welcome here. We must ask ourselves: can we afford to make ourselves unattractive to bright students? 

I also think about how Quebec is the outlier here: no other province charges out-of-province students a higher tuition. It would be incredibly detrimental for Quebec to break that trend, and even more so if other provinces begin to retaliate.

You said discussions are ongoing with the provincial government. Are you hopeful that this tuition increase never manifests? 

I cannot predict where this will land, but as long as there are discussions, there is reason for hope. I don’t think we make French stronger by pushing people away. Instead, we need a constructive approach like we’ve proposed, where we’re offering our students an opportunity to gain fluency in French with classes offered in French. 

That approach would benefit everyone, and a positive way to incentivize people to gain more knowledge and choose to stay in the province. We have attracted incredible talent to campus and we want to keep doing that. I hope the government does the right thing. We will have to wait and see.