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

When Quebec’s governing CAQ party lost a by-election to the separatist Parti Québécois on Oct. 2, a chastened Premier François Legault did what he does best and went looking for a new windmill to tilt at. He found one in the province’s three anglophone universities.

Last Friday, his government unveiled changes to university tuition policy that will have a startling upshot: As of the fall of 2024, the yearly tuition for new out-of-province undergraduate students enrolling at McGill, Concordia and Bishop’s university will nearly double, going to $17,000 from around $9,000 (tuition for Quebec residents is unchanged).

Those additional funds will be pocketed by the government. The government is also reversing a previous policy and will now pocket about $17,000 of the much higher tuition paid by international students, who are far more likely to attend an English-language university in Quebec than a French-language one.

The government says these additional dollars will be used to fund French-language universities to the tune of about $100-million per year.

The new policy is a disaster in the making for Quebec’s three English-language universities. A glance at undergraduate tuition rates for out-of-province Canadians at universities across the country – which top out at about $9,000 per year – makes it clear that the three universities will be priced out of reach for all but the wealthiest non-Quebeckers, and will deprive them of tens of millions in tuition revenue.

While the policy will affect French-speaking people living outside Quebec as much as English-speaking ones, that is irrelevant to the discussion. The policy’s stated aims are twofold: to stop subsidizing the university educations of “Canadian anglophones” who don’t stay in Quebec after they graduate; and to discourage them from coming in the first place, because their unilingual presence in Montreal threatens the French language.

This is an obvious attempt by the Legault government to demonize English-language universities in the public eye, and to justify any harm to their finances.

It requires a small mind to believe that one part of the country contributing to the cost of the education of students from another part of the country is somehow an injustice – especially in light of the fact that Quebec will receive $28.7-billion in equalization and transfer payments in fiscal 2023-24. There are better ways for Mr. Legault to fund French universities than by gutting McGill, Concordia and Bishop’s.

But then an opportunistic focus on identity politics is Mr. Legault’s specialty. He was elected premier in 2018 by promising to lower immigration rates in Quebec and bring in a values test for newcomers. Once in power, his government banned some provincial employees from wearing religious symbols on the job, an cruel law that only survives thanks to the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution.

It’s self-serving for his government to suddenly focus on university students ordering pitchers of beer in English on boulevard Saint-Laurent for three years and then leaving the province for good, when in fact the 2021 census figures showed that the share of the Quebec population that can have a conversation in French stood at 93.7 per cent.

There’s a contradiction, too, between not wanting anglophone undergrads to come to Quebec at all, in order to keep Montreal’s streets safe from English, while also relying on their higher tuition fees to finance French-language universities. How does that work? Is it now okay to harm the French language as long as the government can make a buck off of it?

Finally, there is the reality that Quebec is competing for talent and investment on a global scale, or ought to be. But between restrictive new language rules for newcomers and businesses that came into effect last year, and now an all-out war on the province’s English-speaking universities – including McGill, one of the top-ranked in the world – the province’s messaging to the international community is going to require a little finessing.

The rest of Canada, too, will have questions. If Quebec is going to lean on a principle that says it shouldn’t subsidize the education of students from other the provinces, is there not a risk they could respond in kind?

It’s all too sad for words. Mr. Legault lost one seat in the National Assembly, and his instinctive response has been to trap Quebeckers behind an ever-higher wall.

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