McGill’s global aims undented by local difficulties

Heather Munroe-Blum outlines her institution’s ‘complex mission’

June 27, 2013

Despite being one of Canada’s most prestigious universities as well as one of its leading research institutions, McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, does not fit the mould of its international peers.

Its C$1.1 billion (£690 million) annual income (of which C$510 million is research income) and burgeoning patent portfolio seem incongruous set against its annual undergraduate tuition fees in 2011‑12 of C$2,168 for students from Quebec – among the lowest in the country and less than half the national average – and C$5,858 for those from elsewhere in Canada. Moreover, the institution also teaches in what is a minority language (albeit English) in its province.

Although it is one of just two Canadian institutions in the research-intensive Association of American Universities group “by virtue of performance and admission”, as a public institution whose fees are set by the government, McGill cannot charge Ivy League-level prices. But, says principal Heather Munroe-Blum, “nor would we want them”.

The energetic professor of psychiatric epidemiology and public policy, who retires as principal in September after 10 years leading the institution, told Times Higher Education that McGill’s success is about managing its “complex mission”.

That “mission” – a term that comes up time and again in conversation – means being a research-intensive institution that maintains a student and community focus, ensuring that research and professional programmes inform education, she says.

Munroe-Blum says that with no additional government funding to fill the gap between its fees income and that of institutions in many other provinces, McGill, like all Quebec universities, is underfunded. Moreover, McGill’s wide scope means “that the cost of running the place is higher than the cost of running a small liberal arts undergraduate-focused university [an institutional form common south of the border], even though the missions are equally valuable”, she adds.

Balancing the books was made even more difficult in September 2012 when a provincial plan to increase tuition fees was scrapped after a wave of student strikes, which were backed by a larger social movement across the province.

The plan, thrashed out in 2011 between universities and the Liberal government of the day, proposed a 75 per cent increase in fees over five years.

“For McGill, given the fact that we compete with universities outside of Quebec that are funded at a much higher level…it was a compromise but we felt it was a suitable one,” Munroe-Blum says.

Fees should rise not just to bolster university budgets but because the individual good provided by education means that those who can afford to pay a “fair share” ought to, she argues.

Munroe-Blum also contends that Quebec’s low tuition fees have not served to increase university participation or completion rates.

The increase-that-never-was, abandoned when the Liberal government was voted out in 2012, left the institution with a C$18 million hole in its finances. This was exacerbated by additional cuts in operating grant ordered by the incoming Parti Québécois government in a bid to reduce the province’s deficit. Together this has led to a shortfall of C$43.5 million, which McGill has chosen to tackle head on, by April next year.

Cost-saving measures

Speaking as cuts get under way, Munroe-Blum is optimistic that the institution will be able to preserve its front-line priorities. Having drawn up a strict multi-year budget and research plan, the university’s leaders are not “waking up in the morning saying, ‘What are we going to do?’ ” But the plan does demand tough decisions, she adds.

Cost-saving measures include a salary freeze for all staff until June 2014 (saving C$14.9 million), a 3 per cent salary cut for all senior management and 7 to 9 per cent reductions in the operating budgets of the offices of senior management. A voluntary early retirement programme for administrative staff is in train and hiring for vacant administrative roles has been frozen.

Despite a fall from 28th to 34th position in the top 200 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2012-13 – which in interviews elsewhere Munroe-Blum has blamed, in part, on the reputational damage of last year’s unrest – the university is doing everything it can to preserve its academic excellence, she says. This includes maintaining funds targeted at retaining leading academics, paying salaries of new tenured and tenure-track recruits, and investing in infrastructure and student aid.

“The good news is we’re building on a very strong base of having done a massive recruitment of our professoriate, a significant renewal of our infrastructure, and coming off of a successful philanthropic campaign, which is dominantly supporting students,” she adds.

Postgraduate education and innovation are not optional extras, argues Munroe-Blum. As she views it, small business and retail are playing a growing role in Canada’s economy. This may be good for domestic consumers, but “to have growth over and above that – [growth] that allows government to have taxes that pay for all manner of things – you need innovation, and to keep the people here who are innovating,” she says.

In this McGill is undoubtedly successful. But being an internationally focused anglophone university in a majority francophone and sometimes radical province is not without its challenges.

In February, the newspaper Le Devoir published a letter calling for Quebec’s three anglophone universities – which the authors said took 30 per cent of the provincial government’s 2011 funding for a 17-strong university sector – to be funded in line with the size of the province’s English-speaking population, at just 8.3 per cent. In other words, a cut of about C$1 billion.

The letter’s authors, all academics at francophone universities, said that the funding imbalance was a hangover from the days before the “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s, when the French-speaking majority, long under-represented in the higher education system, drove its reform, secularisation and modernisation.

They say that anglophone universities benefit the province less than francophone institutions and that McGill-trained students are more likely than most to take their skills elsewhere after graduation.

Some francophone scholars argue that if McGill wants to pursue its mission – which they see as attracting students from around the world and competing globally, rather than improving education for the province’s students – it should refuse government funding and go private.

Munroe-Blum counters this view strongly, saying it “denies the realities of what builds a healthy civil society, democracy and economy”.

“You need a differentiated university system to serve locally. Whether you’re a small regional university or a large city-based one, if you don’t have some programme that is of a quality that it attracts national and international attention, then whatever your mission, you’re not serving your students well,” she says.

Munroe-Blum sees the success of McGill, which draws 20 per cent of its students from abroad and 25 per cent from the rest of Canada, as far from self-serving. Its ability to raise funding from international fees and research benefits all the province, she says, citing a 2010 study that found that for every dollar invested by the government of Quebec, McGill generated a return of C$13. The university not only trains the brains and talent the province needs (20,000 of its 38,000 students come from within Quebec) but also creates valuable links for the province around the world, she adds.

Fluent in French

Nor is “anglophone” an entirely accurate term to describe the McGill of 2013, Munroe-Blum argues. It was historically the institution of choice for the province’s economically privileged anglophone minority, but today 40 per cent of students are fluent in French and, when allowed to pick just one language, 18 per cent state it as their mother tongue.

In addition, its next principal, Suzanne Fortier, will be McGill’s first francophone leader in its 192‑year history, which may assist in easing tensions.

Fortier, the former head of the C$1 billion Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, is familiar with managing budgets and political wrangling. She will take the helm in September, when Munroe-Blum heads to Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, where she will take some leave before returning to McGill as a full-time professor.

The appointment of a second woman in a row to the post seems to be something else that makes McGill unique among its peers. On the day of the THE interview, all the staff members around the principal were also women. Does Munroe-Blum believe that at McGill, or perhaps in Canada overall, it is easier for women to rise to the top of academia?

Although she is proud of McGill’s decision and the message it sends to all who feel on the margins of leadership, on the gender equity front, Munroe-Blum observes, “we have a long way to go”.

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