The Quebec government has announced that planned tuition hikes for out-of-province students at English universities will be smaller than first proposed, but it’s adding a new requirement that 80 per cent of students from outside the province become proficient in French – policies university leaders are calling financially devastating, poorly conceived and academically impossible.

Pascale Déry, Quebec’s Higher Education Minister, issued a letter to the heads of the English universities Thursday to notify them the government intends to push through the tuition hike and the new language requirements, as well as a clawback of the revenue the schools earn from international student tuition. The province would redistribute that money to French-speaking universities.

Ms. Déry has said the moves are necessary to protect the French language in Quebec, particularly in Montreal, and to balance funding levels in the Quebec system. The government of Premier François Legault has taken a number of steps in recent years intended to safeguard the primacy of the French language, most notably the passing of Bill 96 last year, which has had far-reaching implications for education, health care and the workplace.

Under the new proposal, Canadian students at McGill and Concordia universities who come from outside the province will see their tuition fees rise to $12,000 annually starting next year, up from about $9,000 this year.

That’s lower than the $17,000 figure suggested by the Quebec government in October, but is still likely to have a significant impact on applications and enrolment from other provinces, where average tuition fees are a little more than $6,500 annually.

Both universities have reported that applications are already down 20 per cent.

Beginning in 2025, 80 per cent of students from outside Quebec would be required to attain an intermediate level of French fluency on a standardized scale by the time they graduate, a goal that the universities say is completely unrealistic.

Bishop’s University, which had described the tuition hike announced in October as a threat to its very existence, will be granted an exemption from the tuition policy. It will be able to continue to charge its current rate, about $9,000, to 825 students from outside Quebec. The government ultimately agreed with the university that the French language is not under threat in the Estrie region.

McGill principal Deep Saini said the revised measures are much worse than those initially proposed in October. He called the proposals a “targeted attack,” and said the new policy is incoherent, and based on impressions and emotions rather than evidence. The new measures would lead to a severe drop in enrolment, tarnish Montreal’s reputation and harm the province’s economy, he added.

“We have made thoughtful and realistic proposals to the government from the beginning of November until now, but the government has turned these against us,” Dr. Saini said. “Everywhere I go people are asking me, what’s going on in Quebec? Is the Quebec government closing its doors to the world?”

In November, in an attempt to avert the tuition hike, the English universities proposed a series of language policies aimed at getting 40 per cent of their graduates to a certain level of French fluency by the time they graduate.

The Quebec government has raised the stakes significantly on that proposal by hiking the objective to 80 per cent. Dr. Saini said officials had indicated there would be financial penalties if results fell short, but such details have not been made public.

He added that for students with little previous exposure to French, reaching that level would require an entire semester devoted to language acquisition, which would derail the curriculum or require them to study for an extra term.

“It’s academically not possible,” Dr. Saini said.

McGill and Concordia had both already instituted hiring freezes and started planning for budget cuts. McGill has said it anticipates losing between $42-million and $94-million annually, nearly 10 per cent of its operating budget, while Concordia has said it expects to lose more than $60-million in revenue under the new policies.

About 33 per cent of Concordia’s students are from outside the province, including international students. At McGill, the proportion is about 52 per cent.

Concordia president Graham Carr said he was hugely disappointed by the government’s announcement. With out-of-province tuition at $12,000 for students who want to study arts and sciences, for example, Concordia will be roughly twice as expensive as schools in other provinces. That will make it difficult to compete, he said.

“The picture is pretty bad,” Dr. Carr said. “We’re nervous, as is McGill, that this will only further dilute the application pool for students from the rest of Canada.”

He also said he was shocked by the government’s proposal on language training.

“Honestly, I have no idea where that [80-per-cent] number comes from. And I have no idea on what the minister has based the feasibility of that target,” he said. “These kinds of policies are bad news, not just for Concordia, and McGill, or even for Bishop’s. It’s bad news for Montreal as a great university city. It’s bad news for Quebec in terms of the image it creates that Quebec is not welcoming.”

Sébastien Lebel-Grenier, the principal and vice-chancellor at Bishop’s, said in a statement that he is grateful to francophone leaders and others in the Eastern Townships for speaking out in support of the university and persuading the government that students from the rest of Canada are not a threat to the French language.

Dr. Saini said McGill is not leaving Quebec. But in a note to the campus on Thursday, he said the university must prepare to navigate difficult waters.

“With the very core of our identity under threat, I give you my word that we will fight these destructive measures with all that we have,” Dr. Saini wrote.

The Globe and Mail, December 14, 2023