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Quebec's planned tuition hike for out-of-province students draws criticism in Ottawa

Quebec Premier Francois Legault responds to the Opposition during question period, Tuesday, October 17, 2023 at the legislature in Quebec City. Quebec's plan to double tuition for out-of-province students beginning next year is raising some concerns with federal politicians and members of the business community. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

MONTREAL — Quebec's plan to nearly double tuition for out-of-province students beginning next year is being questioned by federal politicians and members of the business community.

Last week, the Quebec government said tuition for undergraduate students from other provinces will rise to $17,000 from $8,992 for the 2024-25 academic year. As well, it said it would collect the first $20,000 paid by international students and reinvest that money in French-language universities.

The changes would disproportionately affect the province's three English universities, which attract far more out-of-province and international students than do the francophone institutions — and more money.

On Tuesday, Quebec Premier François Legault defended the move, arguing that the playing field needed to be levelled between English- and French-language universities and that the influx of anglophone students is a danger to the survival of the French language, notably in Montreal. 

The province said it pays $110 million per year subsidizing the costs of educating university students from outside Quebec, many of whom leave after they graduate. Legault said the money saved will go toward recruiting more students for French schools.

"I am determined to reverse the decline of French in Quebec," Legault said.

In Ottawa, Liberal ministers raised concerns about the signal sent by Quebec's tuition plan and what it could mean for attracting talent and business to the province.

"I don't think it's the best decision," Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez, a Montreal MP, said Tuesday in Ottawa. "Universities are like a window into the world and I feel like we're closing that window a little bit."

François-Philippe Champagne, federal minister of innovation, science and industry, said Quebec's decision sends the wrong message to those whose talents are needed in industries such as artificial intelligence and electric vehicles.

"I am very mindful of the work that's being done in Quebec to support French language," Champagne said. "But on the other end, I think there is a reflection that needs to be done in terms of what signal it sends."

McGill University principal Deep Saini said in a memorandum to the university community on Monday that by doubling tuition, Quebec could be making prospective students think twice before applying to the school. 

"These measures, if implemented, would have serious consequences," Saini wrote. "It goes without saying that these measures could affect the recruitment of prospective Canadian students from outside Quebec, as it will cost less to study elsewhere in Canada for many programs."

Half of the McGill student body is from Quebec, with 30 per cent international and 20 per cent from out-of-province.

"This diversity of origin and perspectives is part of McGill’s unique character — its DNA," Saini wrote. "We must protect this richness of community."

The president of the Montreal chamber of commerce said in an interview that the hike could worsen labour shortages and damage the city's reputation as an international university town. Michel Leblanc said the focus should be on integrating students and helping them to learn French. 

A concern is if students don't come here as undergrads, the pool for grad and postgrad students, who the Quebec government recognizes as strategically important, could shrink, he said.

"We have not yet seen a good comparison of the new tuition rate in Quebec compared to other universities in Canada and across the world, and we have not seen a detailed analysis that would say we remain competitive," Leblanc said. 

 This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 17, 2023.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

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