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Check whichever ranking of universities you want. They all show the same broad result: Quebec universities don't rate internationally, with the emphatic exception of McGill and, to a lesser extent, the University of Montreal. The quality of the rest of the province's universities is so poor, according to these surveys, that they barely draw a mention.

The Times Higher Education survey, for example, places 16 Canadian universities in the top 350 worldwide, with five in the top 100, including McGill. All the other Canadian schools, except the University of Montreal, are outside Quebec. Put another way, Quebec has a shade less than a quarter of Canada's population, but just two of 16 of the country's best universities.

Or take the U.S. News and World Report survey. It's got nine Canadian universities in the top 300 and four in the top 100, including McGill, but no francophone school. Or the Shanghai ranking (with its worldwide reputation): 18 Canadian schools in the top 300, but only two francophone schools (Montreal in the 101-150 range and Laval in the 201-300 range).

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All rankings have their limitations. Some are quite subjective. They measure different things. The gap between one rank and another is often small. And so on. But when the same general pattern emerges, you can presume something is up – or down, in the case of a lot of higher education in Quebec.

Student experience is another way of measuring university performance, and the surveys in Canada show satisfaction at all Quebec universities to be in the tank. In the Maclean's ranking – admittedly an especially unreliable one – Quebec's universities are below average in every category (as are some of the supposedly excellent ones in the rest of Canada).

For any advanced industrial society, universities are a critical element in economic development, productivity and a literate population. As such, Quebec has a problem, derived in part from the big funding gap between its institutions and those elsewhere in Canada, let alone in the United States. The provincial government has estimated that gap at $600-million, and that estimate is likely quite low.

The modest proposal by Jean Charest's government – to raise fees by $325 each year for five years – was designed to fill some of that funding gap, thereby improving quality. Quebec fees, had the proposal been accepted, would have remained well below the Canadian average, let alone the North American one.

Instead, the issue of quality – where Quebec has a serious long-term challenge – was forgotten in the political drama that is still playing itself out in Quebec society, on the streets, on television and in closed-door negotiations between the government, student representatives and, in recent days, the big public-sector unions that have become the protesting students' mentors and allies.

At the heart of the students' demand – either a freeze in today's low fees or their complete elimination – is a demonstrable fallacy: that low fees enhance access and higher ones diminish it.

In Ontario, fees are three times those in Quebec – and university attendance rates are 10-per-cent higher. Forty-five per cent of Ontario students attend higher education institutions, compared with 35 per cent in Quebec. If fees determined rates of participation, those numbers should be reversed.

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Faced with the protests, the Charest government predictably buckled, spreading the increase over seven years and then agreeing to something utterly pernicious.

Since the students and their union allies insisted that no fee increase was needed, the government agreed to a) roll back non-academic fees, and b) create a committee of representatives from the universities, student groups, unions and business to scour university budgets for savings, with the money thus obtained put not into improving quality, but offsetting fees.

This move emasculates the boards of governors and empowers the unions, business and government to rummage around the universities, diluting their independence. If professors had any sense of the threat to their academic freedom, they would be up in arms about this intrusion.

The Charest government has demonstrated it lacks courage, is prepared to meddle directly in the administration of universities, buckles to union pressure and street demonstrations, and is content to allow most of the province's universities to lag behind in quality.

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