Principal Heather Munroe-Blum talks tuition and research

McGill/News by
Alice Walker

Last week, Principal Heather Munroe-Blum sat down with reporters from the Tribune, the Daily, and Le Délit to discuss tuition fees, the university’s relationship with Quebec City, and competition between McGill and American schools. The interview has been edited and condensed. Thanks to the Daily and Le Délit for asking several of the questions.


Won’t the increased tuition fees McGill is pushing for hinder accessibility to education?

My view is that when you have low tuition fees and a declining investment per student on the part of government, accessibility is only hurt. It’s not facilitated. It’s not just quality that gets affected in that model, it’s accessibility. The value, which intuitively sounds right, that if you have low tuition, more people will be able [to attend university] simply doesn’t pan out in reality. Those who are in financial need don’t need low tuition, they actually need a grant of some kind or a bursary to pay for all the things you need while going to university.

How has the departure of Minister of Education Michelle Courchesne changed McGill’s relationship with Quebec City, particularly with regard to the proposed university governance bills?

We actually don’t know where the government’s bill stands currently. We haven’t heard anything about it, so that remains to be seen.


How does McGill review and regulate the companies it partners with to do research?

Our dominant interest has been in making sure that the research that’s funded here, whether it’s funded by industry or government, meets ethical standards and is consistent with the mission of the university. [With regard to] the extent of industrial investment in research in universities, Canada’s actually among the lowest in the Western world. It’s viewed to be an economic problem that Canada’s industry doesn’t invest in R&D, both in their own corporations and in universities. There’s actually a very strong interest on the part of the provincial and the federal governments to increase the engagement of industry with R&D. But certainly we work hard on both the philanthropic side and on the research side to not have partners who are lacking in public integrity as judged by the law.


Do you think tuition fees should vary on the basis of the salaries students can expect to make after they graduate?

It’s a very interesting question. There’s another question that’s out there sort of parallel to that: Should tuition fees vary on basis of the cost of the program? I don’t think it’s black and white on either of those questions. For example, we don’t have enough physicians. I think you really want to think about the social good [created by such programs]. There are programs that cost more—Dentistry, Engineering, Medicine, Music—and within that group, the potential for earnings is quite variable. I’m married to a musician turned writer—I know that musicians don’t have a good shot at making even a meaningful wage. Even though it costs more [to run], I don’t think you want to charge the full cost of the program to Music students. Medicine, I think you need to look at what the societal needs are. Engineering, I think there’s a question about whether there’s somewhere higher than you might charge an Arts students that you could charge an Engineering student, because the costs are definitely higher and the compensation is higher at graduation, on average.

McGill has purchased two downtown hotels in the past two years to increase residence space. How much does the university plan to keep expanding the residence system?

When I came in 2003, there was a lottery system for first-year students. There were not enough beds for all first-year students. That seemed absolutely crazy. We took out a bond issue for $150 million to allow us to enhance and expand our holding with a dominant emphasis on residence, but it had to be in areas where the resources generated would pay off the bond. We’re just about at the end of that process. We’re still without meaningful accommodation for couples, for graduate students, for others, so there will be a question in the next five years about going beyond where we are.

McGill frequently compares itself to the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia in Canada. What American universities would you compare us to?

We compare ourselves to the public universities in the Association of American Universities, [a group of about 60 research-oriented universities in the United States and Canada]. That’s our sort of benchmark. Within the public universities, when comparing our performance and our funding, we have two groups: those who are funded in a way that replicates the way we’re funded, and those who are funded the way we’d like to be funded—that is, with a really high level federal government investment in graduate students and graduate research. When I say we punch above our weight, I mean that we perform, by some of these metrics, as well as public universities funded at a much higher level than we are, [such as the University of North Carolina].