Protesters condemn Quebec plan to double tuition for out-of-province students

MONTREAL — Protesters who oppose Quebec's plan to double tuition for out-of-province students said Monday the provincial government hasn't offered any evidence that the move will protect the French language.

Many participants at the protest in Montreal, which stretched for around two city blocks, wore purple, the colour of Bishop's University, the province's smallest English-language university and the only one located outside Quebec's biggest city.

Sophia Stacey, president of the student association at the Sherbrooke Que., school, says she worries about Bishop's ability to survive without out-of-province students — who make up almost a third of its 2,900-person student body.

“Even if Bishop's does survive, what's at risk is the diverse identity that's made Bishop’s what it is for the past 180 years,” she said in an interview.

Stacey, who moved to Quebec from Medicine Hat, Alta., said part of the reason she decided to study at Bishop’s was to improve her French.

“You walk through campus, you hear people speaking in French. Although it’s an English university, we're giving out-of-province and international students the tools and the environment they need to learn French while they're studying here,” she said.

One of her fellow students, Kendra Buchner, carried a sign that read — in French — "I love Quebec, but Quebec doesn't love me."

The Bishop's drama student is doing a minor in French. She said she fell in love with Quebec during an exchange program and decided to study in the province, but doesn't know if she will stay after graduation. Government policies, such as the proposed tuition increase and last year's language law reform, have made her feel increasingly unwelcome.

"To hear (Higher Education Minister) Pascale Déry say, 'We're tired of people going back to their home province after they're done their education,' but what reasons are you giving us to stay? You're essentially driving us out," she said in an interview.

She said she also worries about how francophone students from Ontario, New Brunswick and other parts of the country will be able to study in Quebec after tuition rises next year from about $9,000 to around $17,000.

In Quebec City, Premier François Legault defended the plan to increase tuition for undergraduate and professional master's degrees precisely because it will limit the number of students at English universities.

While anglophones make up nine per cent of Quebec's population, he said, 25 per cent of students in the province attend English-language universities and he said he fears that percentage will rise at a time when, he argues, the French language is declining.

"I think that these proposals are reasonable and I think that the three anglophone universities must appreciate that getting 25 per cent of all university students in Quebec is a lot and maybe it's a bit too much," he told reporters.

English was heard most often at Monday's protest, but francophone student groups have also opposed the proposed increase.

Catherine Bibeau-Lorrain, the president of Union étudiante du Québec, a student group with 93,000 members from 11 student unions, all of which, except for Bishop's, are at francophone schools, said the issue is one of accessibility, not language.

"A student cannot pay around $20,000 for their studies, it's not viable and it does not encourage students to come study in Quebec, and to, after, maybe work in Quebec," she said.

Many out-of-province students fall in love with Quebec's culture and language — and learn French, increasing the number of French-speakers, Bibeau-Lorrain said.

Provincial government officials have said the tuition hike would help correct an imbalance between the French and English university networks, created by the higher number of out-of-province students at English schools. But Bibeau-Lorrain said Déry has not presented any figures to show that French-language universities will actually benefit from the new measures.

Lisa Bornstein, an urban planning professor at McGill University, said many of her students stay after graduation; while some go on to teach, others work as planners or for community organizations, giving back to the province that supported their education.

"If the amount of money that our departments and universities retain falls, it means our money to give scholarships for all students changes, we can't support them the same way, and that means that the schools become schools for the wealthy," she said. "That's a tragedy."

Bornstein said she — and her students — regularly collaborate with colleagues from francophone universities.

"I understand the need and desire to make sure that people who are in our programs learn French, but increasing access to learning French seems like a much more sensible approach, rather than restricting the numbers of people who come in," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 30, 2023.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press