Quebec's CEGEPs are falling into disrepair, warns auditor general

Quebec's auditor general, Guylaine Leclerc, tabled a report showing that two-thirds of the province's CEGEPs are in disrepair without the necessary funds for renovations.  (Sylvain Roy Roussel/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Quebec's auditor general, Guylaine Leclerc, tabled a report showing that two-thirds of the province's CEGEPs are in disrepair without the necessary funds for renovations. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/Radio-Canada - image credit)

Two-thirds of the infrastructure belonging to Quebec's CEGEPs is deteriorating to the point that some have to close and funds earmarked by the government won't be enough to fix them, warns auditor general Guylaine Leclerc.

In her report tabled at the National Assembly Thursday, she said the conditions of the province's public colleges have gotten worse in the last five years and the Higher Education Ministry's budget covers less than half of what's needed to reverse the trend.

The amount of buildings considered in bad or very poor condition went up from 24 per cent in 2019 to 65 per cent in this year. The government put aside just over $608 million for maintenance of CEGEP infrastructure between 2023 and 2028, but Leclerc estimates that $1.7 billion would be needed.

Leclerc also points out that some CEGEPs don't have enough space while others have a surplus and says expansion projects approved by the government aren't taking those needs into account.

"A significant proportion of asset maintenance budgets are allocated through project analysis by the Ministry of Higher Education, and the projects selected are not in line with the priorities established in the analyses," she said in her report.

"The process is lengthy and inefficient, and has led to infrastructure closures."

The government set out to have 80 per cent of CEGEP buildings in good condition by the end of 2025, but given the deteriorating situation, the target was lowered to 70 per cent by the end of 2026.

Leclerc pointed out that the needed budget for projects is often underestimated and schools have to wait at least a year to hear back from the government after sending in applications. Often this means the already poor conditions of the infrastructure worsen and can cause further damage. For example, a leaky roof can lead to the floors deteriorating.

CEGEPs in need

The Cégep de La Pocatière in eastern Quebec submitted five projects to the Higher Education Ministry for the 2021-22 fiscal year, ranked according to priority. In July 2022, the CEGEP was told the first, fourth and fifth projects were approved.

The project the school ranked as second-most important aimed to refurbish the student residences on the main campus, built in 1974, for $5.5 million. One of the six buildings shut down in May 2023 due to mould that developed due to water infiltration and the threat of collapse of an exterior brick wall. Rather than approve funding for renovations, the ministry chose to allocate $1.5 million for the acquisition of a new residence — which the school said would have been more useful to put into renovations. However, the current process does not allow the transfer or available funds from one project to another.

At the same time, Cégep de La Pocatière had to close down its pool — the only one within 60 kilometres. It had applied for funding to repair the pool in 2021.

In the report, the ministry is quoted saying some projects with lower priority are selected over those with higher priority mainly due to budget availability.

In 2015, Dawson College began discussions with the education ministry about a $100-million expansion project, which was turned down in 2022.

By June 30, 2022, Dawson managed to accumulate over $13 million in allocations, which were to be used, among other things, to refurbish existing spaces. But Dawson's operational budget was cut by $800,000 for the 2023-24 school year, according to the report.

Leclerc recommends the ministry offer more support to CEGEPs in their applications, allocate the budget according to needs, improve its analysis and evaluation process and work with CEGEPs with surplus space to optimize its use.

Minister acknowledges gaps

Higher Education Minister Pascale Déry acknowledged certain shortcomings in the management of college network infrastructure at the National Assembly Thursday.

Déry suggested that the current situation was the result of a laissez-faire attitude on the part of previous governments, saying that before the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) came to power, there was "no mechanism in place" and it was "a bit of a first-come, first-served situation."

"I'm well aware that, for previous governments, asset maintenance wasn't a very sexy issue," she said.

The CAQ has since made substantial investments in the Plan québécois des infrastructures (PQI), which will reach $2.1 billion by 2034, stressed Déry. According to her, the money should make it possible to absorb a large part of the asset maintenance deficit over the next few years.

The government also changed the process for project call-outs, though the auditor general considers this process to be lengthy and inefficient as it forces the ministry to respect budgets divided between six different envelopes.