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PGSS hosts education summit to prepare for PQ summit

Students, faculty, administrators, and other members of the educational community within, and outside of McGill debated diverse aspects of the role of post-secondary education in Quebec, and at McGill, in early December. The two-day education summit was organized by the Post-Graduate Students’ Society of McGill University (PGSS), and the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU).

According to PGSS Secretary General Jonathan Mooney, the summit was intended to promote discussion on topics that will be under scrutiny at the upcoming Quebec summit on higher education, which the Parti Québécois has said will be held in February.

“We felt that in the aftermath of last year’s conflicts and in anticipation of the Quebec summit, it was important to have a nuanced discussion about important topics regarding higher education in Quebec,” Mooney said. “It’s valuable to hear different perspectives on these topics because it offers stakeholders a chance to explore these complexities, and try to think of creative solutions.”

PGSS Vice-President External Errol Salamon said the PGSS originally intended to create a document based on discussion at the summit, but have changed their plans due to low attendence and the cancellation of several guests, such as  representative from ASSÉ.

“That said, we are reviewing some of our policies (and hoping to create policies) about key issues, including tuition and ancillary fees, which we hope to pass in Council this semester,” he said. “The summit will certainly inform our positions.”

In one panel, Mooney moderated a discussion that focused on the question of who “should” finance universities. Panellists included McGill Principal Heather Munroe-Blum, SSMU Vice-President External Robin Reid-Fraser, former PGSS Vice-President External Mariève Isabel, and Professor John Galaty, the former president of the McGill Association of University Teachers (MAUT).

Much of the discussion focused on how tuition costs affect students’ ability to attend university. Reid-Fraser argued that increasing tuition prices decrease accessibility, and pointed to higher tuition as a barrier for the social mobility of those from lower income families.

“Even if you have financial aid, there is … the fear of accumulating debt, particularly in a position where the economic picture is not very stable; and it’s not guaranteed that students coming out of university with an undergraduate or graduate degree are going to be able to move quickly into the workplace and pay off that debt,” she said.

Galaty, however, argued that free or low tuition is “inequitable” in certain ways.

“What the present tuition system represents is a massive benefit to those families that are more wealthy, because essentially, they are able to achieve a level of tuition payment, which is equivalent to those who have true financial need,” he said. “If you have a very low, stable tuition fee, what you’ve done is provide tuition relief to all those who don’t need it.”

As a way to potentially minimize this problem, Galaty pointed to American university applications, where students must submit a form that allows the university to identify those who are in need of financial assistance. He said another option is to give tax credits for tuition on a graduated scale that refunds money to those of lower income backgrounds.

According to Isabel, society as a whole benefits greatly from the education of students. She cited a study by the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ), which states that every dollar the Quebec government invests in a graduate student returns $5.30.

Munroe-Blum expressed agreement that certain groups of students should receive financial support, including research, masters, and PhD students, as well as “qualified students” who can’t afford to pay otherwise. She said students should pay “to the best of their ability,” but also emphasized the diverse factors that affect a student’s ability to go to university.

“The social milieu has a far greater impact on who goes to university than tuition,” Munroe-Blum said. “Frankly, I am very concerned about the results of the educational system, and I think something we really need to focus on is actually looking at who graduates. Do those who are the first in their family to go to university graduate?”

Reid-Fraser concluded by drawing attention to the complex nature of barriers to secondary education, and the need to extend the discussion of accessibility beyond tuition.

“Financial barriers are a very important thing to continue to talk about, but another long-term project is to re-envision how we make the information … available [here] to people who maybe can’t sit through lectures every day or learn from a book as easily,” she said. “I know a lot of friends who did not go to university, simply because their learning style is not suited to being in a classroom, and yet, there is so much valuable information that we get when we’re in a classroom or at a university.”


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