McGill University and the Quebec government have been locked in a stare-down ever since the school announced last year it would no longer abide by provincial caps on tuition fees for its M.B.A. program. The province promptly kicked up a fuss, and even threatened to fine the school for its insolence. So far, neither side has blinked—even though students are back in class and their tuition bills are in the mail. “We’re still in the same place we were several months ago,” says Peter Todd, the dean of McGill’s Desautels Faculty of Management. “We’ve made it clear we’re going ahead.”
The 56 students entering McGill’s M.B.A. program this fall will shell out $29,500 a year for the privilege. That’s about 15 times what Quebec residents will pay in tuition for any other master’s program at McGill, and more than five times as much as out-of-province Canadians. McGill’s M.B.A. fees are hardly out of whack with those of other top-tier programs across the country—Canadian residents beginning their M.B.A. studies this fall at the University of Toronto will have paid about $75,000 in tuition before the end of the two-year program, while those at the University of Western Ontario will be out $68,500 for its one-year program. (Like the University of Toronto’s, McGill’s is a two-year program.) The big difference is McGill didn’t wait for the government’s permission to announce the hike.
This past spring, Quebec’s then-education minister Michelle Courchesne lashed out at the university, reminding it that “tuition fees are set by the government.” Courchesne also threatened to claw back $28,000 in funding to the university—$11,000 of which would have been the province’s share of funding for M.B.A. students—for each student registered in the program if McGill went ahead with the hike. However, Courchesne was never given the opportunity to follow through on the threat; she was shuffled out of the education portfolio last month and replaced with Line Beauchamp.
Beauchamp declined to be interviewed, but a ministry spokesperson acknowledges there hasn’t been any movement on the issue, since “the new minister hasn’t yet had time to work on the file.” That means McGill still isn’t sure what to expect from the government in the coming months, though Todd says the school can absorb the fine should the province choose to impose it. “If we have to deal with some issues with the government in the short term, we’re absolutely committed to doing that,” he says. “We don’t see that we have a lot of choice.”
The spat is the latest in a growing list of ideological battles between supporters of Quebec’s cap on tuition and those who say it starves the province’s universities of much-needed funding.
In 2007, the Jean Charest government announced it would hike university fees by $100 a year for the next five years—the first increase since 1994. But three years later, critics say Quebec’s universities are still teetering on a financial precipice.
At a speech to the Canadian Club this past June, McGill principal Heather Munroe-Blum argued, “The biggest obstacles to our universities’ success are the outdated objects of our ambition and underfunding.” Her complaints echoed those of a group of 16 prominent Quebecers, including former premier Lucien Bouchard and former finance minister Monique Jérôme-Forget, who in February called for the deregulation of tuition fees. “Quebec’s universities are hurting,” Bouchard said in a statement signed by the group. “The condition is not incurable, but it is chronic.” However, the call for reforms has yet to find a receptive audience either with the government or the opposition.
While the Charest government has agreed to hold wide-ranging talks this fall on university funding, its stance on McGill’s decision to privatize its M.B.A. program makes clear it’s not yet willing to relinquish its role in setting fees. In that sense, the Liberals are on much the same page as the opposition Parti Québécois, which argues deregulation would undermine Quebec’s increasingly unique egalitarian approach to post-secondary funding. “If we’re going to raise the issue of tuition fees, it’s not with the idea of having the state disengage itself,” says PQ post-secondary education critic Marie Malavoy. “By making such a provocative move, what McGill University is doing is calling into question the model of Quebec universities.”
Todd rejects the notion that McGill is charting a revolutionary course with its expensive new M.B.A. program. “We’re at the end of a chain of this kind of transformation across the country,” he says, “not at the vanguard of it.” And he’d be right, of course, if McGill were anywhere else but Quebec.