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McGill University on Oct. 13 in Montreal. The Quebec government is raising tuition rates for out-of-province and international students beginning in 2024.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

You practically need a PhD to figure out the politics of university financing in Quebec.

Successive provincial governments have been torn between the economic dividends yielded by wealthy anglophone institutions and remedying the historic disadvantages faced by much poorer francophone ones. They never seem to get the balance right.

After Premier François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec government announced a near-doubling of tuition fees for students from other provinces, and a hefty clawback on fees paid by foreign ones, Quebec’s three anglophone universities denounced what they called a misguided effort to target them, all in the name of protecting French.

Still, the move did not come out of the blue. While the CAQ’s humiliating defeat in an Oct. 2 by-election in Quebec City surely accelerated the process, the new financing model unveiled last week by Higher Education Minister Pascale Déry had been in the works for months and is aimed at reversing a five-year-old policy that has disproportionately benefited anglophone institutions.

In 2018, former Liberal premier Philippe Couillard’s government deregulated tuition fees for international students and ended the practice of clawing back part of the fees they paid. The move was a huge boon for McGill University and Concordia University, the province’s main Montreal-based anglophone schools, and served as an incentive for them to recruit more foreign students than ever.

The Couillard-era policy also helped francophone universities raise more revenue, including the cash-strapped affiliates of the Université du Québec in smaller regional cities such as Trois-Rivières, Chicoutimi and Rimouski. But the fruits have largely gone to McGill and Concordia, as well as smaller Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, which all have a much higher proportion of foreign students than the 10-institution UQ system.

Université du Québec president Alexandre Cloutier, a former Parti Québécois member of the National Assembly and ex-PQ leadership candidate, has led the charge for a new funding model. That is not surprising. The UQ has an accumulated deficit of $554-million and is constantly scrounging for cash to maintain existing programs.

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In its June submission to the government, the UQ showed that McGill earned $165-million in tuition fees from foreign students in 2021, while Concordia pocketed $104-million. The UQ’s 10 institutions together earned less than $50-million. The UQ has also complained that federal research grants have favoured McGill and Concordia.

That is not the only reason the Couillard-era policy has been unpopular in French Quebec. It has led to thousands more foreign students arriving in Montreal since 2018. International students have pumped hundreds of millions of dollars a year into the local economy. But, combined with thousands of temporary foreign workers, their arrival has raised concerns about the increased presence of English in Quebec’s largest city.

It was only a matter of time before Mr. Legault’s nationalist reflexes kicked in.

“It’s nothing against anglophones,” the Premier insisted on Tuesday in defending the new financing model. “And yes, when I look at the number of anglophone students in Quebec, it threatens the survival of French.”

Under the proposed new funding model, students from other provinces will see their tuition fees rise to about $17,000 next year from the current $8,992. Universities will be allowed to keep only about $3,000 of that – a sum that matches the in-province tuition rate – with the rest going to the government, which plans to split the proceeds among francophone universities. But to the extent the hike leads to fewer out-of-province students coming to Quebec, there may not be much extra cash to redistribute.

Indeed, Mr. Legault himself seemed shaky on the details of his own government’s policy. He was unable to say whether students from other provinces would be spared the tuition fee increase if they attend a francophone university – according to Ms. Déry’s proposal, they would not – even though they could not conceivably be accused of contributing to the anglicization of Quebec. The Premier also contradicted his own minister by ruling out an exemption for Bishop’s University, whose principal called the new policy an “existential” threat to the university’s survival.

If anything, McGill, Concordia and Bishop’s are likely to rely even more heavily on international students to compensate for the expected drop in the number of students from other provinces because of the Legault government’s new tuition policy. How does that protect French? Students from elsewhere in Canada are generally more sensitive to the French fact in Quebec, and many become bilingual as a result.

The new “equalization” model might help somewhat to alleviate the cash woes of francophone universities. But the main reason for their precarious financial state remains unrealistically low in-province tuition fees – the legacy of the 2012 Maple Spring that contributed to the downfall of Jean Charest’s Liberal government after it attempted to raise them.

And Mr. Legault is too afraid to try that again.

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