McGill and Concordia sue Quebec government over tuition hikes for out-of-province students

"One really has to stand up for these types of principles," said lawyer Julius Grey, after Concordia and McGill announced they're suing Quebec over its decision to hike university tuition for out-of-province students. Alyssia Rubertucci reports.

By News Staff & The Canadian Press

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.

In separate lawsuits, the two Montreal universities say the government’s decision constitutes discrimination under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and that the hikes have damaged the schools’ reputations.

Tuition is set to rise to roughly $12,000 from about $9,000 for out-of-province students next fall, except for Quebec’s only other English university — Bishop’s — which was exempted because it is outside Montreal.

The Quebec government has defended the tuition hikes, saying that they were imposed, in part, because there are too many people who speak English in Montreal.

Both Concordia and McGill have said they’ve recorded significant drops in applications since Quebec announced the tuition hike in October and have warned it could trigger a steep drop in enrolment and devastate their finances.

The lawsuits are also challenging the government’s 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.

Concordia’s President and Vice-Chancellor Graham Carr writing to the school’s community, “Let me be clear about one essential point: this legal challenge does not diminish Concordia’s commitment to the protection and promotion of French.” 

“The changes could have a significant and harmful impact on Concordia’s student enrolment, financial well-being and international reputation. Members of the government publicly admitted as much on several occasions.”

He continues that the government rejected their “historic proposal on francization and did not respond to our offer to create a differentiated structure for tuition fees, which would have allowed our universities to remain competitive with others in Quebec and Canada. Now, regrettably, we have no choice but to pursue a just outcome through legal action.”

Deep Saini, President and Vice-Chancellor of McGill, writes that the Legault “government has confirmed it is unwilling to reconsider the changes to tuition and financing for students from outside of Quebec.” And “given this extraordinary situation, we have no choice but to deploy extraordinary measures.”

While the legal proceedings are separate, their approaches are complementary and coordinated. Both institutions identified numerous aspects of the policy that violate fundamental tenets of administrative law as well as the Canadian and Quebec charters.

Lawyer Julius Grey says he is “pleased” the universities are taking legal action because “one really has to stand up for these types of principles.”

Grey says he believes Quebec’s plan is discriminatory based on language.

“It’s absurd that people are being penalized for being at an English language institution, and the premier has added to this by saying that those students will come in are putting in peril the future of French in Quebec,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any danger to French in Quebec but certainly if there were, I don’t see how students coming into study from Ontario or wherever would put that at risk.”

But Grey says the legal battle may be a long one.

“I think it’s virtually impossible for final judgment for September, maybe they can get the rules suspended in an injunction,” he said. “Suspensions are very difficult because there is a presumption the government is acting in the public interest, so it’s something that is not easy to do, they might try and they should try.”

McGill’s challenge

Following a unanimous vote at a special Board meeting on Feb. 15, McGill on Friday launched a legal challenge against two government measures:

  • Tuition increases for Canadian students from outside Quebec studying in undergraduate and professional master’s programs; and
  • Changes to the funding model for international students studying in undergraduate and professional master’s programs.

Saini says that these measures threaten McGill’s mission and place as one of the world’s top universities, and their vital role in Quebec.

“In addition to the financial costs, they are making students think twice about coming here, and recruiters are hearing from prospective students that these measures make them feel unwelcome in Quebec.”

McGill University is asking the court to issue a stay, which if granted would suspend the application of the two measures while the court considers the challenge.

McGill says that the case argues that the measures:

  • Constitute discrimination under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
  • Were an unreasonable exercise of the powers of the Minister of Higher Education, since they were incompatible with the mission assigned to her by the Ministry of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology Act.
  • Were adopted following inadequate consultation and an unfair process.
  • Constitute a disguised and illegal tax, which is being imposed without the authorization of the National Assembly.
  • Create unconstitutional barriers to interprovincial trade thereby limiting student mobility, choice of university and access to education.

“This legal action does not challenge the francisation target announced by the government. McGill is participating in a government working group convened to discuss francisation, and we remain hopeful we can work together to set realistic, achievable targets.” 

Concordia University’s message

Concordia’s President and Vice-Chancellor Graham Carr also wrote to his school’s community, saying, “We anticipate this process could be long, and there will be limits on what can be shared publicly as the proceedings unfold. That said, I will update the community as I am able.” 

Adding that as early as June of last year, they shared with the government an action plan to increase the francization of non-resident students at Concordia. “Then, in November, together with Bishop’s University and McGill, we presented an ambitious plan demonstrating our commitment to addressing the decline of French in Montreal, which, as already mentioned, the government rejected.”

“Francization efforts continue to be a priority for Concordia, and we will work with the government to develop a reasonable approach to advancing our shared objectives. We want our non-francophone Canadian and international students to be equipped to stay in Quebec after graduation, joining the nearly 180,000 Concordia alumni who live here and contribute meaningfully to the social, economic and cultural vitality of Quebec.”

Carr says, “the changes could have a significant and harmful impact on Concordia’s student enrolment, financial well-being and international reputation. Members of the government publicly admitted as much on several occasions.” 

-With files from The Canadian Press

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