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Proposed university framework causes a stir in Québec

Recommendations include dismantling the Université du Québec network.

By MARIE LAMBERT-CHAN | SEP 18 2013

A working group preparing a university framework for the Quebec government published a wide-ranging report that aims to rethink the foundations of the province’s universities; those foundations were rocked by student protests during the so-called Maple Spring. In doing so, the report’s authors, Lise Bissonnette and John R. Porter, drew praise from some and criticism from others.

The government mandated Ms. Bissonnette and Mr. Porter – who chair the board of directors of Université du Québec à Montréal and Université Laval, respectively – to write the report (PDF) after last February’s Summit on Higher Education in Quebec. The report defines the university’s mission and values, describes governance, proposes creating a national council of universities, and reviews the proliferation of short programs and the rules related to student democracy.

But the main reason that their report has been making headlines is because of its controversial recommendation to dismantle the Université du Québec (UQ) network. Currently, its 10 member institutions operate under more government oversight than the more autonomous chartered universities, such as McGill, Concordia, Université de Sherbrooke, Université Laval and Université de Montréal. All universities in the province would become part of a “single public network.” Far from being a sweeping rejection of the UQ, the proposal aims to recognize the maturity of the UQ institutions, which, according to the co-chairs, are perfectly capable of operating independently. The UQ network would therefore become a service cooperative.

The proposal upset some student associations, which consider the UQ to be Quebec’s crown jewel. UQ President Sylvie Beauchamp expressed her reservations, as did the Quebec federation of university professors. The public outcry prompted a response a few days later from the minister of higher education Pierre Duchesne. He told Canadian Press that “the network will not be dismantled; it’s here to stay.”

One of the mandates of the working group was to clarify the mission and values of a university, subjects that are rarely mentioned in Quebec legislation. “For close to 50 years now, everything has taken place as if the State had nothing to do with the design and architecture of a [university] system that it proclaims to be essential to the development of the society it governs,” wrote Ms. Bissonnette and Mr. Porter.

Similar to the Magna Charta Universitatum signed by some 400 rectors in Bologna in 1988, the proposal would define the university mission around teaching, research and community service and integrate that mission into the framework’s preamble. The framework would also include values of institutional autonomy, academic freedom, collegiality, equal opportunity, ties to Quebec and local communities, and cooperation.

The co-chairs would like to see each university in the province “implement a code of practices that supports the operations of its governing bodies, particularly its board of directors.” This code would define the board’s roles and duties and the procedures for appointing the rector and for selecting and appointing directors. Moreover, the authors said that directors should be paid a salary, as directors are in public corporations.

The Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, or FEUQ, the main student organization, argued that the recommendations regarding governance don’t go far enough. “The report suggests that the schools could make up their own board,” said FEUQ president Antoine Genest-Grégoire. “This is not how you streamline university operations or improve accountability.”

The Bissonnette-Porter report also recommends transforming the Conference of Rectors and Principals of Quebec Universities (CREPUQ) into a “forum for cooperation between the establishments and for shared services.” The private membership organization showed signs of crumbling last year when some rectors pulled out their institution or threatened to leave. CREPUQ did not comment on the report, and did not take part in the working group.

The proposed framework would create a National Council of Universities (CNU) whose main roles would be to help assess the quality of university activities, advise the minister on the general orientation of universities, and issue notices about new programs.

The CNU would also examine salaries of rectors and high-level administrators, the proliferation of satellite campuses, the growing number of credentials, and mechanisms related to student democracy. Ms. Genest-Grégoire of FEUQ retorted that “the working group for the university framework is not a forum to debate student democracy.”

Officials at the ministry of higher education plan to study the report over several months. Two other working groups created after the Summit on Higher Education — one on college education and the other on the policy governing university funding – are scheduled to release their findings next June.

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