Campus Visit: Université Laval, Quebec City

Spring is a great time to visit Université Laval, North America`s oldest French-language post-secondary institution. A short drive or bus ride west from Vieux Québec – the city`s renowned historic neighbourhood – Laval is welcoming you with its dozens of modern buildings, large green spaces, botanical gardens, sports fields – and a multi-cultural student population. (In Quebec`s typically cold winters, students can walk between campus buildings through a complex network of underground pedestrian tunnels, over five km long).

Flag of Laval University, Quebec City. Françai...

Flag of Laval University, Quebec City. Français : Drapeau de l’Université Laval, Québec. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

About 40,000 undergraduate and graduate students call Laval their university. With its 18 faculties and schools – ranging from dentistry to forestry to theology – U. Laval is an appealing and relatively accessible choice for many French-speaking persons from the Province of Quebec (the vast majority of them), the rest of Canada, and around the world.

Well-known for its Rouge-et-Or varsity sports, Laval`s football team (men) is particularly celebrated for having won the most Vanier Cups (the championship of Canadian Interuniversity Sport football): six times, a tie with U. of Western Ontario Mustangs. Laval has one of Canada`s largest sports complexes and students participate in various sporting and non-athletic competitions, such as Concrete Canoe, International Tractor and Force Avenir.

400+ academic programs (roughly half undergraduate and half graduate), hundreds of distance learning courses, and three education profiles (entrepreneurial, cooperative, and international) make U. Laval an institution catering to a wide range of student needs. This is one of its strongest features – and perhaps its Achilles’ heel as well.

In the latest (2012) Maclean`s ranking Laval takes the 12th spot in Canadian “medical and doctoral” universities (a category of post-secondary institutions offering a broad range of research and doctoral programs, including medical schools). In the national reputational ranking Laval places 18th (this ranking combines all medical doctoral, comprehensive, and primarily undergraduate universities in Canada). In its category, Laval scores 8th on total research dollars (a plus repeatedly emphasized by university officials) and 10th on student awards.

Laval`s vision is “to become one of the best universities in the world.” Its model, however, to “[give] all members of its community the chance to grow, develop their potential, and establish themselves in an [...] institutional setting” may prevent it from achieving that very worthy goal. Laval is one of Quebec`s better and larger post-secondary institutions – notable alumni include three Prime Ministers of Canada and seven provincial Premiers – but its all-encompassing community mandate is what seems to be holding it back.

To truly become a top Canadian and world university, Laval will need to revisit fundamental principles – to move away from a Quebec-centred mission and promote more forcefully its many strengths on the national and international post-secondary education market. It will also need to focus more strategically on a fewer number of academic specializations, closely coordinated with its research programs.

Until this transformation happens, Laval may not be one of the world`s leading universities – a Caltech, Harvard or Stanford – but it definitely continues to be an attractive choice for Québécois and international Francophone students. In its French-speaking niche, Laval offers rich educational options in a lovely (albeit somewhat cold) city. Tip: enjoy the sun and the warm weather while it lasts – you`ll notice, the locals follow this rule religiously.

Canada Places 3rd in 2012 Ranking of National Higher Education Systems

A recent study by Universitas 21 rated national systems of higher education and placed Canada on 3rd place worldwide, after the United States and Sweden. The measures for the analysis were grouped under four main headings: resources, enviornment, connectivity, and outputs. The Executive Summary points out that:

[a] nation’s economic development depends crucially on the presence of an educated and skilled workforce and on technological improvements that raise productivity. The higher education sector contributes to both these needs: it educates and trains; it undertakes pure and applied research. Furthermore, in a globalised world, a quality higher education system that is well-connected internationally facilitates the introduction of new ideas, and fosters trade and other links with foreign countries, through the movement of students and researchers across national frontiers.

The full report can be found here.

Mind the Gap: Quebec’s Post-Secondary Education Woes

As this post is written while Quebec students’ “strikes” are still occurring – disrupting not only regular education processes but also the province’s already tumultuous political life – I may be tempted to weigh in and provide my views on the protest itself. I won’t and I will not address here issues of morality, social justice, agency, the role of universities (and CEGEPs) in society, taxation and representation. There are countless voices out there, at this moment, doing precisely that – from the militant student group CLASSE to Globe and Mail and National Post editorialists.

The trigger for this sudden interest in Quebec’s higher education is Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s decision to raise tuition fees over the next five years by about 75 per cent. The reaction from a sizable section of the provincial student population has been swift and, in some cases, violent – student “strikes” led to courses being cancelled, institutions being shut down, hundreds of arrests and confrontations with police, for the past three months. Except for op-ed pieces in national newspapers and brief TV reports, the reaction has been muted in ROC (the rest of Canada).

What I will attempt to provide however are some facts and observations about university tuition in Canada’s overwhelmingly francophone province. This is the main point of contention, which pitted the government against students. Largely frozen for decades, university tuition in Quebec is the lowest in Canada (and, arguably, in the whole of Canada and the United States). While tuition fees vary from university to university and from program to program, as a rough guide they are half what students in the rest of Canada pay for their post-secondary education.

The provincial government (as other governments as well, elsewhere) is heavily subsidizing university studies. For example, currently, tuition can be as low as $2,701 at Université de Sherbrooke and $2,781 at Université Laval in Quebec City, for provincial students. At McGill University in Montreal, one of Canada’s best schools, the tuition fees are $3,727, slightly more than half what students in neighbouring Ontario pay for their studies.

Why this does not lead to a huge influx of students from ROC is unsurprising: the provincial government only subsidizes education at this rate for Quebec residents (and a few other selected categories). Out-of-province students pay higher tuition, similar to (or higher than) what they would pay in their home province – e.g., $6,391 at Sherbrooke, $6,471 at Laval and $7,417 at McGill.

Tuition fees for out-of-country (international) students, everywhere in Canada, are higher than for Canadian students. For arts and science programs in 2011-2012, international student tuition averaged $16,426 at Sherbrooke, $16,728 at Laval and $20,420 at McGill. To put things in context, international student tuition can be as low as $9,006 at Moncton U. (New Brunswick), $9,010 at Memorial U. (Newfoundland) or $11,726 at University of Lethbridge (Alberta).

The tuition fees for Quebec residents haven’t even been indexed for inflation for several decades. Even with the proposed 75% increase, the fees would still be some of the lowest in Canada (an argument that proponents of “free” education may not be willing to entertain). A recent analysis in Maclean’s magazine indicated that “[h]aving been in effect for 32 of the past 43 years, the tuition freeze has been as enduring as it is economical. As a result, students today are getting an even better bargain than their forebears.”

Of course, whenever money is involved, especially when that translates into tuition hikes, changes are bound to lead to political disagreements. As long as the confrontation takes places in the appropriate fora – legislatures, university boards or negotiation committees – healthy debates are beneficial to the overall state of the education system.

Whatever the outcome of the current student protests will be – and one hopes a compromise will be reached soon – this crisis highlights the existence of a different paradigm on access to post-secondary education. Quebec’s multi-layered approach to charging tuition fees if being tested in 2012 and early indications point to developments that will slowly close the gap between the Quebec model and practices in the rest of Canada.

Time will tell if Quebec will maintain a distinct post-secondary system and if the gap in this sector will gradually diminish between “la belle province” and its Canadian counterparts. Either way, the current status quo will likely prove to be unsustainable.

Building Bridges Between British Columbia and Brazil

A very informative piece in The Vancouver Sun (May 3, 2012), signed by Stephen Toope, President of the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Chairman of the Board of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), and Arvind Gupta, Professor of Computer Science at UBC and Scientific Director for Mitacs, a Canadian research and training network.

They note that Canadian higher education institutions will sign many agreements with Brazilian universities “to advance research collaborations and student exchange,” but “the true bedrock from which these bridges will be built is authentic people-to-people relationships.” The link to the full article can be found here.

How Do You Say “Welcome” in Portuguese? Canada Opens Its Doors to Brazilian Students

Over 30 Canadian university presidents visited Rio de Janeiro in late April 2012, in a “tour de force” meant to strengthen and further advance educational linkages between Canada and Brazil. The fact that the mission took place should come as no surprise – after all, Canada is keenly interested in attracting international students, and Brazil is one of the world’s largest economies, with a relatively low median age. What is worth noticing though is the scope of this initiative, involving Canadian academic institutions from coast to coast, and the fact that the Canadian delegation was led by Governor-General David Johnston, a former university president himself.

What triggered this unprecedented mission – besides Canada’s newly found interest in Latin America – was Brazil’s Science Without Borders program. The program’s objective is to spend $2 billion over the next several years to allow over 100,000 Brazilian students to study at foreign universities, on a temporary basis before returning home to complete their degrees. Canadian universities and government organizations will also contribute millions of dollars in scholarships and student-mobility programs to draw Brazilian students. “We see a huge appetite in Brazil for Canadian education. To my great delight, Canada is the most favoured nation for Brazilians,” the Governor-General said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

While Brazilian students may indeed think highly of Canada’s higher education, not many are currently coming to study here – at least when one compares the number of Brazilian post-secondary students studying in Canada (600-700) with those in the United States (reportedly about 9,000) or elsewhere. This is what this mission is trying to address: the agreements established by the Canadian delegation with their Brazilian counterparts are expected to attract a booming 20,000 additional students in Canada by 2016.

This is not one day too soon: David Johnston pointed out that “Canada has about half as many international students in our classrooms as the global standard.” While Brazilian students will bring additional revenue to Canadian universities in the short term, they will also establish – over time – highly valuable linkages between Canada and one of the world’s emerging economic powerhouses.

At a personal level, the experience of studying in Canada will offer the Brazilian exchange students memories that will last a lifetime. Some may even decide to call this country their new home.