University Funding: The Complacency Trap

Lettre ouverte de Michel Patry et Hélène Desmarais

December 2, 2010

In November, BusinessWeek magazine recognized HEC Montréal as one of the world’s top business schools, as have Forbes, Financial Times and AméricaEconomía. It is a source of pride for Quebec, a tribute that helps our graduates find employment here in Quebec and across the globe.

Successes like these, just like the School’s international accreditations, are the result of hard work and joint efforts by the entire community. The chronic underfunding of Quebec universities could compromise our hard-won gains, however. For HEC Montréal, just as for all universities, the quality of the education we offer and our ability to innovate are clearly at risk.

A recent CREPUQ study estimated that the Quebec university system is underfunded by $600 million a year. How can we continue offering a learning environment of the same quality as other universities when we have an average shortfall of about $3,000 per student?

Does our society have the necessary resolve to prepare a world-class generation of new leaders? A new generation with access to the same human, information and physical resources as students in Vancouver, Calgary or Toronto? If we do in fact possess that resolve, we must have the courage to remedy the current situation..

If we look no farther afield than Quebec, we can always convince ourselves that all is well and that we are on the right track. But it is risky for our society to allow such underfunding to continue at a time when other countries, in particular emerging economies, are investing massively in cutting-edge education. This underfunding is compromising Quebec’s social and economic development.

Let’s use an analogy from our favourite sport. We know that the Montréal Canadiens are more likely to reach the playoffs if their annual budget is on a par with that of the other teams in the league. Otherwise, in the long term, the Habs will fall behind and be unable to compete with the other teams. Would we be willing to accept that? Of course not.

Yet this is the situation we are facing when it comes to university training. Why should we stand by and watch as our university system collapses? Why should our future doctors, engineers, architects and managers not be able to acquire the same skills, to equip them to compete with their counterparts from other parts of Canada and elsewhere in the world? Quality has a price, and it is precisely that quality that is jeopardized and has been for many years now, because of the chronic underfunding of our universities.

The Quebec government puts more money into university education than the Canadian average. In other words, Quebec taxpayers are certainly doing their share already. The source of the underfunding problem is well known: tuition fees. In fact, if the figures are adjusted for inflation, Quebec students today are paying less for their education than did their parents in 1985 and their grandparents in 1968!

There is no time left for procrastination. Tuition fees must be raised to bring them closer to the Canadian average in all fields and disciplines. Government regulation needs to be reviewed accordingly, and more financial assistance provided for students.

Other innovations, such as a sliding fee scale depending on the discipline, or a range within which each university could set its fees, would introduce some flexibility, encourage schools to focus on specific missions, and result in a wider variety of educational options.

Will we have the courage to take the necessary measures to halt the downward slide of Quebec’s university system? If we fail to admit the urgency of the situation and the need for action, if we refuse to put a fair price on quality, our society as a whole will be walking into a trap. The complacency trap, which will condemn us in the long term to mediocrity.


Michel Patry Hélène Desmarais
Director, HEC MontréalChair of the Board, HEC Montréal

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