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Universities approve statement by education minister Legault

Education Minister François Legault's policy statement on universities last week elicited a range of reactions, from warm approval to sharp criticism.

In his October 26 statement, the minister said that higher education is key to Quebec's future progress. The universities' financial burden should be eased, access should be safeguarded, quality preserved and enhanced, and employable science and technology graduates should be a priority.

He acknowledged the importance of attracting and keeping the best possible faculty by offering them competitive salaries, but he also said that there is too much duplication of programs, and that universities should start to specialize and complement one another.

CREPUQ applauded Legault's remarks. The current president of the association of rectors, Universitˇ Laval Rector Fran¨ois Tavenas, said it was reassuring to have the importance of higher education confirmed, and to be able to look forward to greater competitiveness in the international scene.

Rector Frederick Lowy said, "On the whole, we can be encouraged. Of course, this is the first of three papers that have been promised -- the second is to be on immediate and the third on long-term financing -- so we would hope that the details will be spelled out.

"The statement seems to those in the university community to be full of general principles that are well understood here, but for the general public, it's a valuable statement about the importance of education to Quebec society. To his credit, Mr. Legault has done what he said he would do."

Newspaper editorialists were not so sure. They noted that although the universities had asked for $300 million now and a yearly increase of $700 million, the minister offered no money, and said the freeze on tuition fees, now about half the national average, would be maintained.

Alain Dubuc of La Presse said that Quebec runs the risk of being marginalized because of its protracted neglect of higher education. Money is not all that is needed, he added. A survey of Quebecers showed that a scant 51.5 per cent thought that going to CEGEP or university could help a young person get a job, a statistic Dubuc found "terrifying."

He noted that Quebec universities spend 30 per cent less than those in the rest of Canada, and that Canadian universities, in turn, spend 30 per cent less than those in the U.S.

An editorial in The Gazette applauded Legault for paying more attention to higher education than his predecessor, Pauline Marois, and approved his general approach, but deplored the continuation of the tuition fee freeze.

Henry Aubin, in a Gazette column, thought Legault's suggestion that graduates be required to spend 15 of their first 25 working years in Quebec was the wrong way to go about stopping the brain drain. However, that exodus is real; fully 30 per cent of Quebecers who move elsewhere in Canada have university degrees, while only 8 per cent of the general Quebec population are university-educated.

The president of the Fˇdˇration quˇbˇcoise des professeures et professeurs d'universitˇ (FQPPU) is Arpi Hamalian, an Education professor from Concordia. In an FQPPU statement, she approved Legault's statement of principles, including access, diversity, excellence and interdependence of research and teaching, but she deplored the language he used.

"Productivity, efficiency, accountability, performance indicators -- these are the catchwords of a market-driven ideology," she said. "A commercial culture has taken root in the university sector. We are extremely worried." As a result, the FQPPU is calling for a permanent commission on universities that would be a nonpartisan advisory council furthering the interests of higher education, including funding policy.

-Barbara Black

Copyright 1999 Concordia's Thursday Report.