Should’ve started from the top, Minister

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Last weekend, the Minister of Education, Ms. Line Beauchamp, got a stroke of genius. Taking the hint from student associations, she just realized maybe time had come to require from university presidents that they be publicly accountable for their management. To this end, the minister says she is ready to discuss the creation of a new organization mandated to investigate the way in which universities use the billions in public funds they’re entrusted with.

Congratulations Minister. Although here’s the thing: this organization already exists and it doesn’t cost anything. It is called the Parliamentary Committee on Education. Moreover, since 1995, following the amendments I brought, this committee has the mandate to force university presidents to disclose their salaries and other benefits (interest-free personal loans, severance packages, company car with driver, golf club membership, etc.), and to appear in front of the committee once every two years to answer to the parliamentarian’s queries regarding their administration.

Presidents hated my guts for compelling them to publicly display their little secrets. When Lucien Bouchard was elected as the Prime Minister in January 1996, they were quick to petition him to bring me down, no doubt through his brother Gérard.

What the government made of this statute afterwards, I do not have a clue. Was it modified? Did the Minister of Education “forget” to bring it to bear or did the Parliamentary Committee lack the balls to fulfill its role as a supervisor and controller? Could these provisions have prevented the abhorrent severance package scandal at Concordia? Perhaps. We’ll never know. One thing is for sure, the statute didn’t cause much of a tantrum since then.

Starting from the top

Why bring back all of this? Simply because, beyond the minimal accountability report lies a fundamental principle which the Ms. Beauchamp has forgotten: when one wishes to change a system, the head must go first.

When Jacques Parizeau appointed me as Minister of Education, back in September 1994, to everyone’s stupefaction, I was called on to “rough things up” the way I had in Agriculture. The parallel between those two sectors had shocked some of the fainthearted, but Parizeau, a former University professor, knew what he was talking about. It would take more than a “mere restyling” to shake up this torpefied milieu where too many people were just taking it easy.

Among other things, the question of funding burned even hotter than it does nowadays. The 1995-1996 budget had been frozen at the level of 1994-1995 for the whole government. In Education, I had to scrape up savings of 400$ million in today’s dollars.

Back then, people were arguing over the topic of related costs, which add to tuition fees, and to which a freeze does not apply. These fees were skyrocketing and, at the same time, university presidents were helping themselves to juicy raises. What’s more, the ministry managers suggested to solve a part of the problem by fiddling with the loans and bursaries, to the detriment of students.

For me, there was no way I’d start by asking students to fork out more. We had to start at the top of the pyramid, particularly by the presidents.

And so, rather than cracking the whip at students on their loans, I re-negotiated the rates payed by the government to banks for funding student debt. They resisted until I threatened them with calling for tenders and allocate all of that funding to the one who would offer the best rate, just the same as I had for farm loans with the Ministry of Agriculture. This manoeuvre alone allowed the government to save over 30$ million.

I also forced school boards to better manage their premises by cutting the funding on unused sites. The extra premises were either put up for sale or deals were struck so municipalities could use them to public ends (library, kindergarten, public assembly buildings, etc.), which contributed to preserve many village schools. Ultimately, I managed to pull off my budget delivering the required savings without touching neither tuition fees, nor student loans.

These two examples show that there is room for cuts in a budget such as that of the Ministry of Education, provided one is ready to rack one’s brains, isn’t afraid to upset the establishments, and knows how to count. For this, the Prime Minister has to assign the task to someone who can do the job. Right now, this is not the case.

Maintaining the freeze

On the question of funds, I have to say I am siding with Guy Rocher, one of the fathers of our education system. Mr. Rocher was recently reminding us that one of the great aims of the Quiet Revolution was free education.

I was Minister of Education for barely sixteen months. I did not have time to tackle the funding of universities the way would’ve wanted, beside sending the idea to everyone that a wholesale cleanup was in order. To my knowledge, the system still hinges on historical budgets and the number of inscriptions, something which has always created distortions.

It is clear to me that, in any event where tuition fees cannot be further lowered, the freeze must be kept. In addition to diminishing accessibility, resorting to automatic tuition hikes would remove the incentive for institutions to improve their management. It is always easier to make the customer pay more than it is to change one’s approach, especially in a situation of monopoly.

The students’ cause is just, and it is about time the Minister acknowledges it and begins working with them instead of against them. Freezing or lowering tuition fees is a political choice the government cannot relinquish to anyone.

Jean Garon Minister of Education under the Jacques Parizeau government.

Translated from French by Benoit Gatineau