McGill, Concordia universities sue Quebec government over 30-per-cent tuition hike

By Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

MONTREAL — McGill University and Concordia University are suing the Quebec government over its decision to hike tuition for out-of-province students by about 30 per cent, claiming the increases violate the Charter and have damaged the schools’ reputations.

In separate applications for judicial review filed in Quebec Superior Court on Friday, the universities say they are left with little choice but to take the government to court. The lawsuits are also challenging the new funding model for international students, under which the schools will be charged $20,000 for every foreign student admitted, with the money going to French-language universities.

“We are undertaking this legal action because we believe that these measures are illegal and if upheld, will threaten McGill’s mission, its place as one of the world’s top universities and its vital role in Quebec,” Deep Saini, McGill president and vice-chancellor, said in a statement.

McGill is also asking the court to suspend the tuition changes pending a ruling on the merits of the case. The university says that without an immediate suspension it will have to make “difficult choices” such as cancelling courses or study programs, and laying off staff.

​Students are thinking twice about coming to Quebec and recruiters are hearing that the tuition changes make prospective students feel unwelcome in the province, Saini said. “I find this particularly distressing, considering how warm and hospitable I have found Quebec to be, and how much employers want and need these highly talented young people.”

Tuition is set to rise to roughly $12,000 from about $9,000 for out-of-province students next fall, except at Quebec’s only other English university — Bishop’s — which was exempted because it is outside Montreal. Quebec has defended the tuition hikes, saying that they were imposed, in part, to reduce the number of out-of-province students, who the government says leave after graduation and don’t learn French. 

Premer François Legault has said that the tuition hikes are needed because there are too many English-speaking people in the central neighbourhoods of Montreal, where the campuses of Concordia and McGill are located. 

As well, he has said that the French-language university system is underfunded because it doesn’t attract the same number of international students as the English schools and can’t charge the high tuition rates. For that reason, he said, the $20,000 taken for each foreign student that registers in the English universities will be transferred to the French system.

Simon Savignac, a spokesman for Higher Education Minister Pascale Déry, said Friday that her office would not comment further given the matter is before the courts.

McGill and Concordia make similar arguments in their respective lawsuits: the Quebec government failed to consider the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as administrative law, when making changes to tuition policies. The tuition fee hike for out-of-province students, the universities claim, disproportionately impacts the anglophone institutions, which receive the majority of students from outside Quebec. 

Concordia says the tuition changes violate the equality rights between French and English-speaking students, the mobility rights of students in the rest of the country and the protections for the English-speaking minority in Quebec.

McGill says the tuition hikes are an unreasonable use of power by the minister and were adopted with inadequate consultation using an unfair process. The school says the hikes are a “disguised and illegal tax” imposed without a vote from the legislature.

The changes imposed by the province also require that 80 per cent of out-of-province students at all three English-language universities graduate with an intermediate knowledge of spoken French by the 2025-26 academic year. The universities are not challenging those targets.

Concordia and McGill have said they’ve recorded significant drops in applications since Quebec announced the tuition hike in October and have warned that the changes could cause enrolment to plummet and devastate their finances.

Concordia says it has received 23 per cent fewer applications compared to the previous year, with a 28 per cent drop in out-of-province and 45 per cent drop in international applications. For the 2022-23 school year, international and out-of-province students accounted for 34 per cent of Concordia’s student body.

The university has estimated that the changes threatened to cut its revenues over five years by between $54 million and $62 million.

McGill has estimated it will lose a minimum of $40 million between now and the next four years, given the drop in those two groups. Out-of-province students account for 22 per cent of McGill’s student body while international students represent 31 per cent. 

To offset the tuition increases, both universities have announced they would offer cash bursaries to certain out-of-province students. 

Originally, the government threatened to nearly double tuition to $17,000 from $8,992, but later reduced the increase to $3,000.

Concordia President Graham Carr said in a letter to the Concordia community on Friday that the university tried and failed to negotiate with the province.

“Although the government reduced its initial proposed tuition increase for out-of-province students, it never worked with us in any substantive way to hear, let alone address, our wide-ranging concerns.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 23, 2024.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

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