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Good news from Quebec

by Barbara Black

Quebec's budget allocation of $170 million for hard-pressed universities spells welcome relief for Chief Financial Officer Larry English, but he's quick to put it in perspective. "I've had people suggesting how to spend our share," he said at University Senate on Friday, "but it is spent."

English came straight to Senate from an information session in Quebec City with ministry officials. While many details remain to be ironed out -- the budget was so fresh that virtually no paper was handed around -- it seems that the cuts that have bled the Quebec university sector by 25 per cent of its operating funds over the past five years have stopped. Indeed, $170 million is being earmarked to staunch some of the wounds caused by massive early retirement programs.

Each university's share of the $170 million is based on the size of its operating budget; Concordia's share would thus be slightly less than 10 per cent, or $15 to $16 million. There are strings attached, however: 75 per cent of the money will be given right away, but it must be spent right away, provided the university has spent at least this amount in special early retirement programs. The remaining 25 per cent will be granted to each university based on its plan to assure continued financial stability.

Incentives will be given to the universities to increase enrolment in computer science and related high-tech areas, and to students who complete their programs within a prescribed period.

One of the most important -- and unpredictable -- aspects of the budget is the introduction of complete indexation of university funding to cost-of-living increases for the current, as well as future, years.

Concordia has performed relatively well at dealing with its cuts, managing a balanced budget until this year, when a $3.3-million deficit has been expected. Before the budget announcement, the Université du Québec had the highest deficit for 1998-99 ($22.8 million), followed by Laval ($17 million); McGill and the Université de Montréal were posting deficits of about $5.5 million, and only the École Polytechnique had balanced its books.

CREPUQ, the association of rectors, was buoyant about the Quebec budget, calling it "an infusion of oxygen," but editorialists called for much more. La Presse's Agnes Gruda was scathing as she compared Quebec's spending on university students to that of Ontario. A lead editorial in The Gazette said, "It's hard to see how Quebec will find the skilled workers it needs for the knowledge economy when there are not enough classrooms and professors to teach core science and engineering courses."

Copyright 1999 Concordia's Thursday Report.