Like many newcomers to Quebec, I marvel at how Quebeckers think big. La Caisse de dépôt, Hydro-Québec, the Cégep system, Cirque du Soleil …. Quebec has a fascinating record of inventing new ways of doing things. We like to experiment.
One sector looking for new ideas is Quebec's higher education system. Higher education policy and especially tuition were, for many, the ballot-box question in the previous election, 19 months ago. Yet they were barely mentioned this time around.
So, is the public policy debate resolved? Not exactly. Dilemmas that pit finances against philosophy don't resolve easily.
The question remains, then: How do we pay for a university system that will offer both access and quality?
This debate is not unique to Quebec. Jurisdictions around the world are grappling with it. But I like to think Quebec will, with its track record, find an innovative solution.
We have to. Talk is in the air of a renaissance for Montreal. Committed citizens are keen to renew Canada's second largest city. But with more than 225,000 students at our universities and Cégeps, Montreal still hires fewer university graduates each year than any other major city in Canada.
A renaissance will be difficult without some novel funding solutions worthy of Quebec. That will take time. In the meantime, what else can be done to keep Quebec's university system – and its economic future – strong and resilient? And how can we keep the talented students we attract here once they graduate?
I have three proposals for Quebec's new government to consider. They hinge on innovation and immigration, two processes with universities at their heart.
First, facilitate student immigration, and ask universities to help. Whether they come from across the seas or across Canada, we must simplify the bureaucratic processes and make the experience joyful for newcomers. If you help us recruit them, we will help them stay. We will connect them to the commercial and civic realms of Quebec. We will teach them French if they don't already speak it. For advanced students, we will help them transition into the professions they once practised abroad.
Second, let's provide more physical spaces, linked together in networks, where students and new graduates can take the reins of their own innovations, their own creativity. In 2012, Concordia launched District 3, a multidisciplinary incubator on campus inspired by Ryerson's Digital Media Zone. At District 3, Concordia's students and alumni work side-by-side to come up with solutions and even build their own businesses. Such innovation spaces provide exactly the creative, hands-on work Generation Y seeks. In partnership with universities, such incubator networks can be sponsored by an industry or a profession. They can be located within a business or on the campus of a Quebec university – wherever the most new opportunities can be created.
And third, offer tax incentives to promote further a culture of innovation, already one of the strengths of Quebec and Montreal especially. Last summer Governor Andrew Cuomo jump-started New York's incubator network with some new tax credits. Under Start-Up New York, tax credits are available to businesses that get established on or near a university campus and that support the university's mission. Those businesses and their employees, who are often the new graduates of the nearby university, get temporary tax relief as they take root here. Quebec could invent its own model to strengthen the renewal of Montreal.
Today, universities privilege merit and access alongside the highest ideals of learning. We do not want to compromise either access or quality. Their role in writing Quebec's future could not be more vital if their potential to become even greater engines of economic and civic equality is fully exploited.
Alan Shepard is the president of Concordia University in Montreal.