The Ideological Divide on University Governance

Quebec’s Political Parties Debate the Merits of Closer Ties Between Universities and the Private Sector

Candidates for Quebec’s four main political parties debated a variety of issues related to higher education at the Université de Montréal on March 26. Photo Michael Wrobel

Another divide has emerged between Quebec’s political parties. In the provincial campaign’s final stretch, politicians disagree on whether the corporate sector has too much influence over university governance and research activities.

At a debate last Wednesday and in interviews with The Link, Quebec’s different parties presented diverging opinions on the private sector’s place in universities and a number of other higher education issues, including academic research.

“I think that it’s essential that on universities’ boards of directors, we don’t find the Bronfmans and company,” said Manon Massé, a candidate for Québec solidaire.

“Yes, we can find one, but only one. It takes, however, a real representation of professors and students, of the people who create the living environment [of a university].

“We can’t manage a university like we manage a company, that’s clear,” she added.

Currently, the law governing institutions like Concordia—the Act respecting educational institutions at the university level—does not discuss the composition of universities’ boards of directors.

But university governance reforms have been a topic of debate since at least 2009, when the Liberal government tabled a bill in the National Assembly that would have required 60 per cent of board members to be from outside the university community. The bill, which was criticized by the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, was never passed.

The status quo is problematic, according to Quebec’s smaller parties.

“We would increase the representation of students and teachers on universities’ boards of governors,” said Alex Tyrrell, leader of the Green Party of Quebec. “Right now, there are a lot of outside people who are invited to sit on the boards of governors of our public institutions and we think that needs to be changed so that the priorities of the universities reflect the needs of the students and the professors.”

But Quebec’s larger parties say the opposite.

“We think that the majority in the boards of directors have to be people who have competencies […] and are people who have a certain distance [from university affairs] and not just stakeholders,” said Stéphane Le Bouyonnec, the Coalition Avenir Québec’s critic for higher education.

Parti Québécois MNA Léo Bureau-Blouin, who was the leader of the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec during the 2012 student strikes, said that a balance needs to be found between internal stakeholders and external actors on university boards.

“It’s not bad to have people from outside, but people from the institution need to have the possibility to express their opinion and have a good representation, because they live in the institution every day,” he said.

Changing the composition of universities’ boards won’t be a priority if the PQ forms the government after the April 7 election, however.

“Our priority is really about the Conseil national des universités,” said Bureau-Blouin.

Creating a Council of Quebec Universities

At the Summit on Higher Education held in February 2013, the PQ government announced its intention to move forward in creating a consultative body, dubbed the Conseil national des universités, which will be involved in overseeing the province’s university network.

“Our objective [with the council] is to have a better interaction between universities, avoid ineffective competition between the institutions,” said Bureau-Blouin, noting that a council would help coordinate the development of satellite campuses such as Université de Sherbrooke’s campus in Longueuil and Université du Québec à Rimouski’s campus in Lévis.

Such satellite campuses have been criticized in recent years for requiring large investments of money while delivering mixed results in terms of attendance. In November 2012, three years after Université de Sherbrooke’s Longueuil campus opened, Radio-Canada reported that many of its classrooms were filled in the evening but sat empty during the day.

A working group was formed after the higher education summit to evaluate possible structures and mandates for the proposed council. In a report tabled last June, political scientist and former university administrator Claude Corbo, who presided over the working group, recommended that the council be composed of 13 members appointed by the minister of higher education.

Corbo also suggested that the council be given the tasks of evaluating the quality of Quebec’s university programs and advising the minister on university funding, the creation of new universities and the construction of new campuses.

From left to right: Coalition Avenir Québec candidate Alain Clavet; Liberal Party candidate Hélène David; Parti Québécois Minister of Natural Resources Martine Ouellet; and Québec solidaire candidate Marie-Ève Mathieu. Photo Michael Wrobel

“It’s not bad to have a development of universities, but we just want to make sure that this corresponds to […] a need of the region and of the students there, and the Conseil national des universités would have the mandate to make sure that there’s a coherent development of the university network,” said Bureau-Blouin.

In a debate about higher education held last Wednesday at Université de Montréal, Québec solidaire candidate Marie-Ève Mathieu expressed support for a university council, provided that most of its members come from the university sector.

“We’d like two-thirds of the members sitting on this council to be people who are part of the university milieu, whether it’s professors, lecturers, students or administrators,” she said.

Liberal candidate Hélène David—currently the vice-rector for international relations, the Francophonie and institutional partnerships at Université de Montréal—told the audience at the debate that proper audits of university finances and academic programs don’t necessarily require more paperwork.

Rather than thicker reports, she said audits could be “clear, concise and intelligent,” adding that a university council could be involved in such auditing and reporting.

However, David also cautioned that the creation of the Conseil national des universités could result in a duplication of tasks with consultative bodies already in place.

The Conseil supérieur de l’éducation, formed in 1964 by the provincial government, advises both the Ministry of Education, Leisure and Sport and the more recently created Ministry of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology on matters related to elementary, secondary and post-secondary education.

“I have a lot of respect and admiration for [the report’s author] Mr. Corbo, but if the government […] endorses all of the recommendations of this report, there’ll truly be two ministries of higher education, on top of the Conseil supérieur de l’éducation and on top of the universities’ own governance structures,” said David.

“There might not necessarily be a lot of paperwork, but there’ll be a lot of captains.”

Collaborating with the Private Sector on Research

The future of research in Quebec universities has also resulted in a war of words and ideologies on the campaign trail.

“We think that if the government’s going to invest money in research in our institutions, it should be in things that are in the public interest and not simply things that are made to advance certain corporate interests,” Tyrrell told The Link.

“There are a lot of things that have been developed in universities that benefit the private sector more than the public sector. We think that’s wrong.”

At the debate, Mathieu said a government led by Québec solidaire would set aside a budget of $900 million to hire 1,000 more professors in the province’s universities and to provide more funding for both pure, theoretical research and applied research undertaken for a specific client-driven purpose.

“The condition that is important to us is that it stays in the public domain,” she said, adding that her party would see it as unacceptable that a professor would be denied access to his or her students’ research because the patent had been sold to a company.

Minister of Natural Resources Martine Ouellet, who represented the PQ at the debate, countered Mathieu’s remarks by arguing that universities already maintain the intellectual property rights over research conducted on their campuses, selling only the rights to use their intellectual property to private corporations.

“The intellectual property isn’t confiscated,” she said. “The patents and intellectual property […] belong to the university. In all contracts, the universities maintain their intellectual property and that’s what allowed the Université de Sherbrooke to have quite substantial revenues from certain research that is used every day.”

Photo Michael Wrobel

David, meanwhile, touted the Liberals’ proposal to create business incubators to stimulate research and innovation.

“Students are doing their doctorate [in these incubators], publishing and doing fantastic research,” she said. “At the Université de Sherbrooke, they have a centre like this that is a nursery for talent, an incubator for young researchers. […] They research and sometimes they discover, and when they discover something—it’s called patents. It’s called making society progress.”

In an interview with The Link, Le Bouyonnec said the CAQ wants to invest in additional satellite campuses and research centres as part of its plan to turn the St. Lawrence Valley into a corridor of innovation. He said his party would make changes to the reimbursable tax credits the province offers corporations so as to encourage more collaboration between universities and the private sector.

Under the CAQ’s plan, corporations would only receive the maximum amount of tax credits for their spending on research and development if they conduct “25 per cent of their [research] activities with universities,” according to Le Bouyonnec. He added that encouraging companies to spend more on university research would help universities absorb the indirect costs of that research.

“The [research and development activities] of companies is intramural. [It] is done in-house and not really with universities,” he said.

“Companies might enter into a sponsorship to put their name on a university building or something like that, but the reality is that, when it comes to doing research, they do very little with Quebec universities whereas in other countries around the world […] there are more relations between the private sector and the university sector, such as in the United States.”

This is the second article in a two-part series about the political parties’ positions on issues related to higher education ahead of the April 7 election. Click here to read the first article in the series, which is about the parties’ plans for university funding and tuition fees.