No. 8 : May-August 2013

Christian Nadeau

Universities in Quebec

Academic Foresights

How do you analyze the present situation of the universities in Quebec?

It is difficult to have an exact representation of Quebec universities today, because everything depends on the kind of parameters according to which we want to evaluate these universitiesm. However, that being said, the government of the Party Québécois organized a Summit of superior higher education this past February attended by numerous groups and authorities. This brought to light a number of things that had escaped our understanding of Quebec universities until now. For instance, I am thinking of the question of student debt or the serious lack of professors in our universities.

What is clear is that there is a signficant divide, in Quebecois society, between citizens' perspectives on the status and role of the university. There are those who, like myself, continue to believe in the university education as a time of apprenticeship during which students obtain both a specialization in a given field as well as a larger education in humanities (or: arts and sciences). Now, those who oppose this position tend to qualify it as both conservative and nostalgic, even backward-looking. They argue that Quebecois universities have firstly to respond to the needs of the global market and focus their energies in such a way that our universities can compete with the world's elite schools, according, of course, to their criteria of evaluation.

Now, with regard to this argument, let me be clear: no one is opposed to virtue or to its cultivation. We all want to see Quebecois universities improve and take their rightful place in the academic marketplace. Indeed, in a number of respects, our universities have become reference-points for European universities (notably Francophones ones) and other world universities. We currently attract an increasing number of European students and this, in an ever growing number of academic disciplines. On the other hand,  I and those who share my perspective  do not agree on two important points: first, the precise meaning of what an "improved" university looks like; second, the modalities according to which we might thereby reach such ameliorations

What I do not particularly like in the current debates concerning the performance of our universities (as compared with the major Canadian, American, and European universities) is that they tend to separate the aforementioned points. Thus, to want "the best" for our universitise does not, and cannot mean that we adopt policies that approximate those of a Harvard or a Princeton. It also cannot mean that we attempt to imitate the French system, where there is free access to university education, but also a two-tiered system consisting of the standard universities versus the system of Grandes Écoles such as the École normale supérieure.

In your opinion, how will the situation likely evolve over the next five years?

Please note that I am neither a sociologist nor a political analyst; therefore, I can only respond in a general way to this question. The government of the Partie Québécois, in addition to the Summit it organized on higher education, has announced a series of upcoming workshops on our provincial universities program.

An initial workshop should allow us to set down a legal framework and policy for universities. We have, at present, two legal systems that apply to Québec universities: there is, firstly, the network of universities "of Québec" and there are the "private charter" universities. The core question, in my view, is how best to protect the autonomy of all universities, such that they are not instrumentalized by political powers, while at the same time assuring greater transparency in their overall management. To be sure, it is also a matter of setting in place a National Unviersity Council that could assure a greater cohesion of university missions. Now, another workshop envisioned will concern college education itself, because we have in Québec a quite unique post-secondary and pre-university educational program known as the Cegep.

During the major student strikes of Spring 2012, the central question concerned the financing of universities, in light of proposed tuition increases. The current PQ government has announced a 3% tuition rise for the years to come. Now, this may appear to be quite modest, but in the long term, it represents a constant, and significant, increase. We are thus very far from the scenario envisioned by those who demonstrated last spring; i.e., of free and open access to higher education.

I should add that one last workshop will concern financial aid for students. While our situation is not comparable to that in the United States, the fact remains that student debt represents a real social problem, here as elsewhere.

What are the structural long-term perspectives?

The coming years will be crucial to the future of Québécois universities, not to mention that of all our public institutions. What is presently at stake is really the heritage of what we call the "Quiet Revolution," that is, the period at the end of the 1960s when Québec created the public institutions that have since distinguished us from other countries (and provinces) in North America.

To my mind, we really should have organized what the French call an États généraux or General Convention on higher education, one that could have produced a report comparable to that published in the 1960s by the Commission Parent. Between 1963 and 1966, the Commission Parent authored a five volume rapport on higher education in Québec, along with policy recommendations. Indeed, it was these that gave rise to our present-day educational institutions.

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Christian Nadeau is a professor at Université de Montréal, Canada, where he teaches political philosophy and ethics. He has published many articles and books, including 'Republicanism' in The Routledge Companion to Social and Political Philosophy, edited by Gerald F. Gaus, Fred D'Agostino,Routledge, 2013.

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