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UQAM's financial fiasco is a major problem for Montreal

 

The university is key to educating our local workforce

 

HENRY AUBIN

The Gazette

 

 

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

 

 

I'd argue that the No. 1 short-term problem that the Montreal area faces today is the financial fiasco at the Université du Québec à Montréal. (Long-term problems such as decaying infrastructure and adapting the region to climate change are another story.)

 

It's easy to overlook UQAM's importance. Its not the most prestigious of the four universities that are the four pillars of the region's knowledge economy. Yet UQAM's role in forming an educated local workforce is arguably greater than that of the most internationally renowned school, McGill. That's because a greater share - far greater - of its graduates actually remain in the metropolitan area and make their careers here.

 

UQAM's real-estate expansion has rung up a debt costing $50,000 a day in interest. It could reach half a billion dollars by 2012. To reduce costs, the university cut its operating budget by 10 per cent, hiked student fees and announced the elimination of 30 specialized programs (each of which typically contains four courses). In all, it's cutting $41 million per year for five years. But this is hardly enough.

 

To be sure, the Charest government would never let the university downsize drastically. UQAM is too valuable economically. The political cost to any government would be too great.

 

But there has been profound damage to the institution's reputation - which is ironic, given that the aim of the expansion, centred on the construction of two glittering new downtown campuses, was in large part to lend UQAM prestige. More important, however, will be the damage to the calibre of the education itself. How many professors will not be hired? How many more courses will be dropped? How many potential students will decide against going to university because of spiralling fees and slipping quality?

 

The crisis raises two questions.

 

The first: Who ought to pay for whatever is needed to bring the university back to health? The bill could come to about $300 million. Should the university pay? Or should Quebec taxpayers pick up this hefty tab?

 

The argument in favour of the university paying for itself would be that it is the author of its misfortune. No one told it to build the science campus (completed between Sherbrooke St. and Place des Arts) and the humanities campus (unfinished at the Voyageur bus terminal).

 

UQAM's new head, Claude Corbo, who has the unenviable job of cleaning up UQAM's finances, made the case last week that Quebec taxpayers should pay. I have deep respect for Corbo's record of public service over the decades, but his argument is weak. He said that since Quebec paid for the Laval métro's cost overruns, it should now pay for UQAM's.

 

That would bolster the idea that planners of public projects can toss prudence to the winds.

 

Indeed, as Quebec's auditor-general showed last week, accountability was dysfunctional at every level. UQAM's head at the time, Roch Denis, kept real-estate details from UQAM's board of governors, the board placed too much trust in Denis, the body that oversees the Université du Québec's six universities across the province was asleep at the switch and so was the person at the top, then-education minister Jean-Marc Fournier.

 

The problem for his successor, Michelle Courchesne, however, is this: If she does the principled thing and makes UQAM pay for its errors, this could further harm the institution's quality. No one wants that.

 

The second question is: How do you change the culture of laxity the is at the root of this project?

 

The UQAM and Laval métro debacle are examples of a trend. Major projects in Montreal tend to elude serious study.

 

McGill and the Université de Montréal wasted years dreaming up grandiose hospitals that, even now that their scale is smaller, keep climbing in cost. Highway 25 and U de M's Outremont campus have never received adequate study. And two big projects of the day, Quartier des spectacles and the private Griffintown mega-project are also avoiding credible scrutiny.

 

I've written about this absence of checks and balances for four years. The void is as glaring as ever. True, the arrival of public-private partnerships (in the case of the hospitals and the highway) could keep taxpayers from getting hit by cost overruns. But PPPs address the management of projects, not their justification. The core problem remains

 

After the Olympic Stadium fiasco, a provincial inquiry headed by the late Judge Albert Malouf urged screening of major projects by independent experts. How many more clinkers must Quebecers endure before politicians accept that common sense?

 

- - -

 

The knowledge economy's four pillars

 

The Université du Québec à Montreal produces the second most diplomas and certificates of Montreal's universities. The figures are from 2006.

 

University Baccalaureat Masters Doctorate Total*

 

Concordia 4,379 1,080 72 5,833

 

McGill 4,665 1,499 345 7,608

 

UQAM 4,466 1,542 115 10,303

 

Univ. de Montréal 5,030 1,433 257 11,286

 

Source: Ministry of Education

 

*including certificates

 

http://www.canada.com/montrealgazette/features/viewpoints/story.html?id=c694a84a-2719-4a9b-ac0c-b290eb76b092

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De quelle réputation vous faites allusion? La seule chose que je sais c'est que les autres universités surtout UdeM la snob parcequ'ils ne peuvent accepter la compétition.

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une chance que je fous le camp à Lyon en échange étudiant, ça m'évitera le calvaire de passer une année de plus là.

 

Mouai, en voyant les universités françaises tu te rendras peut être compte de la chance que tu as ici...

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Je vais à Lyon II Lumière. Ironiquement, le point fort de l'UQAM c'est d'être un peu désorganisée. Je parle ici du programme d'urbanisme dans lequel j'étudie, je ne sais pas comment c'est dans les autres programmes...

 

On est un peu laissé à nous même dans nos projets, on les crée de A à Z, personne ne nous tient la main ou presque. Ça a l'avantage de produire des étudiants extrêmement débrouillards et polyvalents, et c'est pourquoi les employeurs les apprécient beaucoup plus que ceux de l'UdeM (une des raisons pourquoi l'urbanisme à l'UdeM snobe celui de l'UQAM, comme Malek le faisait allusion). Comme quoi ça ne comporte pas que du mal, mais on en travaille un sale coup! J'ai rien contre les profs de mon programme, les plus anciens sont extrêmements compétents.

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