McGill says Quebec tuition hike threatens future of Schulich School of Music

MONTREAL — McGill Symphony Orchestra artistic director and conductor Alexis Hauser says he's bracing for "catastrophe" if Quebec's plan to nearly double tuition for out-of-province students comes to fruition next fall.

The orchestra and the McGill faculty that houses it — the Schulich School of Music — enjoy international renown, he said, and are able to draw talent from throughout Canada.

"From the orchestral scene, it is the centre of Canada," he said in an interview Friday. "If this gets destroyed by tuition fees it would be so tragic and it would hurt Quebec. Quebec!"

"Why would they shoot themselves in the knee? I just don't get it."

The new $17,000 tuition for undergraduate Canadian students from outside Quebec would be among the highest in the country. McGill is projecting an enrolment drop of between 20 and 80 per cent among those students as a result. Some faculties would "lose all their students from the rest of Canada, with no ability to replace them," McGill principal Deep Saini said in a Thursday statement.

"The consequences will be especially devastating for the Schulich School of Music," Saini warned, since nearly 40 per cent of its undergraduates come from other provinces and territories. The $8,000 hike for non-Quebec Canadian students would "likely be cost-prohibitive for new students and will place the school in jeopardy," he said.

Hauser said that prospect makes him emotional. Schulich graduates, he explained, go on to pursue impressive musical careers around the world and extol the education they received in Quebec. "This is an international business, music," he said. "We're getting people from all over the world.

"Why can't this be a … provincial pride?"

McGill estimates the tuition increase, plus new government charges tied to international student enrolment, will deprive the university of between $42 million and $94 million every year. Job cuts numbering in the hundreds, cuts to varsity sports teams and suspensions of major infrastructure projects are among other possible consequences Saini outlined in his statement.

It follows similarly bleak prognoses from Quebec's two other English-language universities, Bishop's and Concordia. The three schools count a higher number of out-of-province students than their francophone counterparts.

Quebec government officials have been open about their intent to curb the number of anglophone Canadian students in the province, a population that Premier François Legault has qualified as a threat to the French language.

Legault said this week he's willing to hear suggestions for alternative measures to achieve that goal, and he confirmed Friday that he's set to meet with the leaders of the three English universities on Monday.

Elizabeth Wirth, chair of the Schulich School of Music faculty advisory board, urged calm among opponents of the tuition increase as the universities formulate counter-arguments. She said Schulich's donor community and existing scholarships and financial aid would continue to support students from outside Quebec, but she suggested significant changes to out-of-province student enrolment would nevertheless be a disservice to the school.

"In the time that I've been involved, the last 20-plus years, some of our great stars … have come from the rest of Canada," Wirth said. "We want to maintain being the best music school in Canada. We have to have a very open door."

"We'll work toward that whether we can do it with the government or not."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 3, 2023.

Thomas MacDonald, The Canadian Press