Last October, the Quebec government unveiled a plan to raise tuition fees for out-of-province students from $8,992 to roughly $17,000 per year and set minimum tuition for international students at $20,000 per year. Two months later, the government partially walked back its decision after public backlash and criticism from universities. In December, the Legault government addressed part of the three English-language universities’ demands, indicating it would limit tuition hikes for out-of-province students to $12,000. But in the same breath, it announced 80 per cent of out-of-province undergrads will now need to achieve an intermediate level of French (level five proficiency) by the time they graduate. Bishop’s University, located in the Eastern Townships, is the only one spared. Minister of Higher Education Pascale Déry explained its unique linguistic situation would exempt them from the new policy.
The ministry showcased the measure as a way to boost “francization,” in line with a funding policy aimed at promoting the French language. Moreover, on Oct. 13, Minister Déry stated the money collected from the tuition hike and minimum tuition requirements “would be refunnelled into preserving, promoting and enriching the French language within [the provincial] university network.
An ill-conceived plan
Jean-Pierre Corbeil, an adjunct professor in the department of sociology at Université Laval and a research associate at the Observatoire démographique et statistique de l’espace francophone, said that contrary to what the government claims, the new measures won’t change the fact that French is on the decline. The government is conflating two distinct goals: correcting the funding imbalance between universities on one hand and reversing the decline of French on the other. Dr. Corbeil questions the metrics used to explain the decline. While he agrees a solution is needed to correct Quebec’s university funding deficits, he believes increasing tuition fees for non-francophone students will do little to address the root causes of the problem.
“Migratory factors, such as interprovincial migration, have had a far greater impact on the evolution of English unilingualism in Quebec,” he said. “Economic factors, internal and international migration and sector-specific labour market trends all play a crucial role. If we really want to do something about the state of French in Quebec, we should be focusing on the underlying dynamics instead of blaming immigrants and international students.”
To make matters worse, Dr. Corbeil said, McGill University and Concordia University weren’t adequately consulted and had no vote in the matter. There was a clear lack of dialogue. “It would have been more useful to put together a commission or held a consultation’ to find more constructive financing alternatives for our postsecondary institutions.”
Fabrice Labeau, deputy provost at McGill, agreed. “We were not consulted and were presented with arbitrarily-made decisions by the government.” It’s simply unrealistic to expect 80 per cent of out-of-province students to reach intermediate-level French proficiency, he said. Students who come to Montreal with no knowledge of French would need to take the equivalent of an extra semester to attain thelevel of proficiency required, placing McGill at an extreme disadvantage against its Canadian and international competitors.
Dr. Labeau adds that McGill already provides students with a variety of French-language learning programs geared toward non-native speakers. They include both credit and non-credit French as a second language courses. More advanced immersion options are available, including in Quebec, for those who want to also learn about Quebec culture.
Soundouss El Kettani, an associate professor in the department of French, literature and culture at Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, pointed out that past programs forcing students to learn a second language have produced mixed results. “In Ontario, high school students were required to take eight years of French and still couldn’t speak the language,” she said. Dr. El Kettani is also the president of APFUCC (Association des professeur.e.s de français des universités et collèges canadiens). She wondered how many out-of-province students Quebec will be able to attract with such a policy in place. “The plan falls short. It’s a little ill-conceived.”
The Quebec government’s Échelle québécoise des niveaux de compétence en français defines the standard for assessing the language skills of adults whose mother tongue is not French. At the intermediate level (level five proficiency), a person should be “able to get the gist of conversations about current topics. They can understand straightforward factual statements delivered in both simple and more complex sentences.” Dr. El Kettani said simply reaching that level doesn’t mean you’re a francophone. “At that level, you can barely order something at a restaurant,” she said.
Dr. Labeau pointed out that “at McGill University, level five is about the level of French required of students who enroll in programs, such as nursing, where a command of the French language is deemed necessary. That’s a basic conversational level, as far as many are concerned. Either way, it’s what’s needed to be able to provide services to the public.”
But the data behind these decisions just isn’t there, Dr. Labeau said. For starters, Dr. Labeau believes the government should be able to provide facts and figures to everyone, including the institutions, on to what extent international and out-of-province students contribute to the “anglicization” of Montreal. He also questions what evidence exists to justify the government’s claim that out-of-province students move back to their home province after completing their studies? What’s the actual retention rate? Without this information, it is difficult to know what the government is thinking, he said.
A committee, yes but why?
With new incoming measures such as a revamped funding model for international students and increased tuition fees for Canadian students, McGill is looking at a potential drop in annual revenue of between $42 million and $94 million, or about five per cent to 10 per cent of its operating budget. According to university administration, this would significantly impact McGill’s ability to attract students and impair its recruitment efforts.
In December, Concordia University president Graham Carr also called the 80 per cent target (the English-language universities had initially proposed 40 per cent) “unrealistic and unattainable.” University Affairs reached out to Concordia, but was told the university will refrain from commenting on the subject until the government has had a chance to set up a committee on implementing the “francization” measures. “The ministry still hasn’t issued any clear directives as to what these measures will look like,” Dr. Labeau said. “Discussing unrealistic targets in a committee is not going to move the needle much.”
UA also reached out to the Ministère de l’Enseignement supérieur for clarification on its goals and timelines for the committee, but has yet to hear back.