How Can Quebec Become a Leader in Distance Learning?

Viewpoint on the widespread benefits of seizing the opportunity to become a North American benchmark for distance learning in higher education

The health measures adopted since the spring of 2020 have forced students to rediscover the pleasures of distance learning. Now that the necessary technological infrastructure is in place, is it feasible for Quebec universities to try to attract a larger international clientele? This publication examines how our universities could seize this new opportunity.

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Renforcer nos universités et aider nos régions (Le Soleil, September 29, 2021)

Enseignement à distance: le Québec a les atouts pour devenir un chef de file (Le Journal de Montréal, September 29, 2021)

Quebec can become a ‘leader in distance learning’ at universities: MEI (The Suburban, October 6, 2021)

Interview (in French) with Miguel Ouellette (Le Québec matin, LCN-TV, September 30, 2021)


This Viewpoint was prepared by Reuven Brenner, Senior Fellow, Miguel Ouellette, Director of Operations and Economist, and Maria Lily Shaw, Economist at the MEI. The MEI’s Education Series aims to explore the extent to which greater institutional autonomy and freedom of choice for students and parents lead to improvements in the quality of educational services.

Distance learning is not a recent innovation in education. Correspondence courses in which students mail in their exam responses have existed for over 100 years.(1) But the pandemic certainly accelerated the implementation of remote learning in higher education. When university professors and students were forced to leave school benches in March 2020, the existing video-conferencing and telecommunication tools were put to the test in an effort to ensure continuity in the school year. And while the virtual learning experience may have presented its challenges in those first months, the long-overdue disruption of traditional teaching methods has uncovered numerous benefits to distance learning.

Bringing Education Back to the Future

Higher education in Quebec has significantly lagged behind other industries in moving toward a more digitally driven and tech-enabled environment. One measure of this is that most Quebec universities dedicate between 1.2% and 4.3% of their annual budgets to information and communication technology.(2) And in the years prior to the pandemic only 11.6%(3) of all Quebec university students had some type of online course experience, with the rest only having been taught through traditional in-person lectures, which have changed little for hundreds of years.

But within one year, the proportion of students having had an experience with online learning has increased to virtually 100% in Quebec. Now that the groundwork for distance learning has been laid, Quebec universities have a unique opportunity to seize: becoming a North American benchmark for distance learning in higher education—especially in the French language, given Montreal’s expertise in computer science and artificial intelligence.(4) Doing so will not be without obstacles, as other countries and institutions are eyeing the same opportunity, but if done correctly, the benefits of pursuing such a goal far outweigh the related challenges.

Creating Partnerships Is the Key to Success

For Quebec to become a leader in this area, policy-makers need to make distance learning a more central strategic priority in our higher education institutions. Introducing a more permanent model of distance learning in Quebec universities will require increased collaboration and the creation of strategic partnerships between schools and key private players in the online education industry. Such partnerships could help develop a more robust technology infrastructure to support distance learning and virtual interactions.

For such partnerships to be successful, however, Quebec universities and policy-makers must foster an environment that facilitates collaboration. In the past, administrative complexity was a significant barrier to the creation of alliances between Quebec companies and universities.(5) We must embrace the governance processes that allowed for speed and agility in institutional decision-making during the pandemic.

Beyond such strategic partnerships, institutions of higher education will need to restructure their present approach to the learning experience, establish new digital learning standards, and reimagine the compensation structure for professors. All of this, without excluding the possibility of having to form stronger relationships with entrepreneurs instead of existing institutions. Furthermore, they will need to determine which in-person activities truly add value for learners. The fields of study that require debate and discussion, such as philosophy or politics, may not be well suited for virtual learning; those that focus on quantitative information, like math, statistics, and languages, are better candidates.

Everyone Can Benefit from the Disruption

While remote instruction was new to many, it has quickly demonstrated its advantages to all parties involved. For students near and far, distance learning has opened up possibilities for improving their higher education experience. They benefit from virtual learning by being able to attend courses regardless of their daily reality or geographical location. Maintaining the option of following a wide range of classes online in the future could help bridge the gap in educational attainment between regions in Quebec by increasing access to higher education, and thus help slow the exodus of young adults from rural areas.

Indeed, Quebec’s most rural regions(6) have been experiencing a net exodus of youths since at least 2001(7) and recent data shows an average net loss of nearly 2% in most of these regions between 2016 and 2020 (see Figure 1). Unsurprisingly, one of the main motivations has been the unavailability of higher education programs.(8) By offering a greater variety of online classes, as was done during the pandemic, students from rural regions could remain in their hometowns while attending university.

In doing so, these students would continue to be active members of the local economy by working part-time, spending money locally, and perhaps even pursuing careers within the community after graduation. If there is a growing pool of skilled candidates residing in such regions, it could attract a larger number of companies to set up shop. Such new activity would in fact be beneficial to all regions in the province, especially since Quebec is the province with the most rapidly aging population in Canada.(9) ​

What’s more, by eliminating the geographical barriers to enrollment in higher education, competition between universities will become fiercer. These institutions will need to compete harder to continue to attract and retain students, so the overall quality of education should increase.

For universities themselves, there are benefits in having a flexible attitude toward lessons and studying. Maintaining distance learning could allow institutions of higher learning to accommodate a greater number of students without having to increase classroom sizes. If students are learning remotely, or even using a hybrid system, there could be a long-term reduction in the need to invest in campus equipment and infrastructure.

Because universities in Quebec receive the majority of their funding through government subsidies,(10) a reduction in the cost of infrastructure maintenance would lighten the financial burden on taxpayers. In fact, government spending on Quebec universities has increased faster than student enrollment. And it is central administrative services that have received larger spending envelopes, rather than student services and instruction.(11) Taking inflation into account, government spending on universities has increased by 40% since 2004, while student enrollment increased by 20%.(12) Distance learning could help rebalance this by reducing the cost of higher education.


The present moment is likely to be remembered as a critical turning point between “pre-pandemic” days when analog on-campus learning was the default, to “post-pandemic” times when tech-enabled teaching is a pillar of competition between institutions. Quebec universities thus have a unique opportunity to seize in becoming a benchmark for distance learning in higher education. But our institutions will only experience a successful transition to the future of learning if strategic partnerships are formed with key players in the online learning industry, and if institutional decision-making is accelerated, as it has been, thanks to the accident of the pandemic, these past several months.


  1. Reuven Brenner, “Distance Learning Began in 1890,” The Wall Street Journal, May 12, 2021.
  2. Authors’ calculations. Information only available for select Quebec universities. McGill University, Budget 2019-2020, May 1st, 2019, pp. 4 and 24; Université de Montréal, Budget de Fonctionnement 2019-2020, April 2019, pp. 9, 38, and 41; Université de Sherbrooke, Budget 2019-2020, May 1st, 2018, pp. 7 and 67; Université du Québec en Outaouais, Budget de fonctionnement 2017-2018, consulted August 17, 2021; Concordia University, Concordia University Budget 2020-2021: New Approach for a New Environment, October 2020, p. 21.
  3. Conseil supérieur de l’éducation, La formation à distance dans les universités québécoises : un potentiel à optimiser, Government of Quebec, June 2015, p. 54.
  4. Brendan Kelly, “Artificial intelligence expert moves to Montreal because it’s an AI hub,” Montreal Gazette, September 6, 2020.
  5. Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal in partnership with Léger Marketing, A look at Canadian University-Industry Collaboration, October 5, 2011, p. 9.
  6. According to the Department of the Economy and Innovation, the province’s most rural regions are the Lower St. Lawrence, Abitibi-Témiscamingue, North Shore, Northern Quebec, and the Gaspé Peninsula and Magdalen Islands. Department of the Economy and Innovation, Portrait économique des régions du Québec, Government of Quebec, 2020, p. 11.
  7. Data is not available for years prior to 2001.
  8. Shanelle Guérin, “Existe-t-il toujours un exode des jeunes des régions éloignées?” Radio-Canada, February 20, 2020.
  9. Institut de la Statistique du Québec, Le bilan démographique du Québec, Édition 2020, Government of Quebec, December 2020, p. 28.
  10. Department of Education and Higher Education, Politique Québécoise de financement des universités, pour une société plus instruite, prospère, innovatrice, inclusive, ouverte sur le monde, Government of Quebec, 2018, p. 43.
  11. Janet Davison, “Where do Canada’s post-secondary dollars go?” CBC News, March 15, 2015.
  12. Authors’ calculations. Statistics Canada, Table 37-10-0011-01: Postsecondary enrolments, by field of study, registration status, program type, credential type and gender, 2020; Statistics Canada, Table 18-10-0005-01: Consumer Price Index, annual average, not seasonally adjusted, 2021; Treasury Board, 2004- 2005 Expenditure Budget Annual Expenditure Management Plans of the Departments and Bodies, Government of Quebec, 2004, p. 89; Treasury Board, Expenditure Budget 2018-2019 Annual Expenditure Management Plans of the Departments and Bodies, Government of Quebec, March 2019, p. 83.
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