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Today’s university lecture: Cheap tuition has a price

The principals of Quebec universities are dumbfounded, and it is easy to understand why.

Like a fancifully strange character out of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the province's Education Minister, Pierre Duchesne, just unearthed by magic close to $700-million in university financing. He is dangling this carrot in front of principals and student leaders in the hopes they will see eye-to-eye on tuition fees when the government holds its higher education summit in February.

This is just one week after Mr. Duchesne ordered universities to chop $124-million from their current budgets by April 30, a request described as "mission impossible" by the principals, short of turning off the heat. And it's just two months after Mr. Duchesne openly questioned whether Quebec universities are truly underfunded.

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Where is this new money coming from? Mr. Duchesne did not say, which cast doubts on his bonanza, given that the Parti Québécois has promised to compensate universities for its decision to cancel the controversial tuition fee hike – only to hit them with cutbacks.

The budget cuts are very real, however. And they are a reflection of a simple tenet that has somehow eluded the PQ and Québec Solidaire supporters, which voted to repeal almost all fee hikes while asking for ever-more-generous governmental services. Free or dirt-cheap services have a true price. And pretending otherwise is costing Quebec dearly, as its universities risk sliding into mediocrity.

"Everybody needs to do his part," Mr. Duchesne asserted, as almost every department is facing severe cuts to compensate a $1.6-billion budget shortfall and limit the growth in government spending to a mere 1.8 per cent, a feat not seen in 14 years. Everybody but the students, apparently.

Quebec wouldn't be in such a dire position if it hadn't repealed the tuition fee hike while keeping the more generous student loans and bursaries put in place to maintain accessibility; if it didn't plan 15,000 new daycare openings while keeping the rates frozen at $7 a day, and so on. No wonder many Quebeckers have come to believe that they can have their cake and eat it too.

But as Quebec is still shooting for its zero-deficit target, there is a flip side to this, and the universities have fallen into the unhappy lot of high-income earners, drinkers and smokers.

Universities are an easy target. The carré rouge, or red square, students argued forcefully that if the schools were managed soundly, there would be no need for a tuition fee hike. And few people are sympathetic to the plea of university managers, given a series of high-profile blunders.

In 2007, Université du Québec à Montréal had to leave unfinished a sprawling development which was to house a student residence, a commercial hub and a bus station in downtown Montreal after the costs ballooned to $529-million from the original estimate of $333-million. The principals' rich compensation has also come under fire, notably at Concordia University.

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Even setting those blunders aside, universities could do a better job at managing their costs, argues well-known economist Pierre Fortin. Universities have to hire teaching assistants in droves, as professors get away with lighter teaching loads. And professors' salaries increased 37 per cent from 1998 to 2008, while Quebec workers as a whole saw their paycheques rise 25 per cent.

But even if universities were better managed, principals still couldn't pull the missing millions out of a hat.

University underfunding can be traced to when the federal government started reducing its transfer payments to provinces. While universities outside Quebec could compensate in part for their funding shortfall by increasing tuition fees, Quebec universities – stuck with the sacred tuition fee freeze – could not.

In 2002, a study commissioned by the Education Ministry and the Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec estimated that the province's universities needed another $375-million annually to be funded at the same level as Canadian universities outside Quebec. When the study was updated in 2010, this figure swelled to a staggering $620-million a year.

And French universities can't count as much on alumni funding, as the tradition of giving back to your alma mater is not as ingrained among the traditionally poorer francophones who expect the state to pay for education.

But Quebec university principals will have a hard time making their case for additional money during the higher education summit. Mr. Duchesne is not even sure there is an underfunding problem. And during the summit, he will be flanked by Léo Bureau-Blouin, a key organizer in last spring's student protests who at 20 was elected the youngest serving member of the National Assembly.

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From the get-go, the universities have two strikes against them.

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