PQ government proposes small tuition increases at university summit
The Canadian Press
Published Monday, February 25, 2013 11:03AM EST
Last Updated Monday, February 25, 2013 11:19PM EST
MONTREAL -- The Quebec government will propose small annual increases to university tuition during its ongoing education summit, an event called to help calm last year's student crisis.
The governing Parti Quebecois is expected to make the announcement Monday at the two-day Montreal conference, a government source said.
Tuition increases were at the heart of the 2012 student unrest, which saw Montreal consumed by massive, nightly demonstrations. It was sparked by the former Liberal government's plan to hike tuition fees by 77 per cent over five years.
Pauline Marois' Parti Quebecois sided with the student protesters in the leadup to September's election campaign and cancelled the Liberal tuition increases after it won power.
While the PQ's annually indexed hikes would be far smaller than the former government's proposal, student federations strongly oppose such a measure.
The Marois government had already indicated its preference for indexing tuition increases at a rate somewhere between about $45 and $80 per year, per student, depending on the formula they use.
The PQ indexation plan will eventually be introduced by decree in the legislature and will be guided by one of three formulas to result in annual increases of either two per cent, three per cent, or 3.5 per cent.
Last year's student uprising was spurred by the Liberal government's proposal to boost tuition rates by $325 per year, over five years. The government later adjusted the planned increases to $254 per year, over seven years.
Martine Desjardins, leader of Quebec's largest student federation, said last week it was too early to know whether her members would be prepared to strike over indexation increases imposed by the PQ.
It was clear from the heavy security at the long-awaited summit Monday that memories of the sometimes-violent 2012 student protests were fresh on the minds of authorities.
Steel crowd-control barriers, a gauntlet of security checkpoints and bag searches greeted participants at the Montreal building housing the two-day event.
Inside the venue, the discussions were courteous.
School administrators, politicians, student leaders and social groups outlined their visions for Quebec's post-secondary education system, talks that explored topics such as university funding and financial aid for students.
Outside the building, police officers circled the neighbourhood on bicycle, sat in vans packed with riot gear and discretely kept watch over the area from the shadows of residential doorways.
The streets around the hall were quiet early in the day, except for around 20 professors protesting tuition hikes. A small group of demonstrators -- some of them were wearing masks -- gathered near the building for a short time before leaving.
It was in stark contrast to the months of Quebecers marching in the streets in a student movement that dubbed itself the Maple Spring.
Marois navigated the treacherous political issue during the recent election with a promise to create a new tuition policy after holding an education summit.
But some student groups are disappointed.
They feel the new government is tuning out some of their ideas and, as a result, they are boycotting the summit.
One of those federations, the more-radical ASSE, is planning a protest to coincide with the conclusion of Tuesday's summit, even though its support appears to have weakened since 2012.
Trouble unfolded far from the summit site.
Hours before the start of the conference, vandals splashed the doors and windows of the Montreal offices of Quebec's Education Department with red paint.
The Montreal-area offices of other prominent PQ members were also vandalized Monday, including those of Higher Education Minister Pierre Duchesne, International Relations Minister Jean-Francois Lisee and Leo Bureau-Blouin, who was a key student leader during last year's crisis.
The PQ courted Bureau-Blouin before the election, and at 20 years old he became Quebec's youngest-ever MNA.
"Of course, it's not good news, but I'm really focusing on the public policies that we're discussing right now," Bureau-Blouin said inside the summit venue.
"I think that this is not representative of the climate that we have here, it's really a calm climate, people are discussing positively."
Bureau-Blouin said the tight security around the summit was likely due to a combination of concerns about student protesters and Marois' safety.
The premier was delivering her election-night victory speech in September when, only metres away, two people were shot -- one fatally -- by a gunman.
"Since what happened in the last months, I know that the security has been reinforced around Mme. Marois and the different ministers," he said.
"But again this should not dismiss the fact that we have some really great public policies that we are analyzing and how we can have a better structure for our universities."
Bureau-Blouin, who led a more moderate student federation last year, said he took to the streets for the right to be heard by the government.
He thinks groups like ASSE should be at the table as well.
"It's really a collaborative way of solving problems, but it's their right to protest and it's part of democracy," he said.
The controversial subject at the heart of the 2012 unrest -- tuition-fee increases -- was to be discussed at the summit later Monday.
The Marois government wants to index tuition fees to inflation, while some student groups are calling for an absolute freeze. The more militant federations, like ASSE, are demanding free tuition, which the government has refused to discuss at the summit.
In her opening speech Monday, Marois acknowledged she didn't expect the summit to solve all the differences over higher education.
She called on participants to maintain a constant, permanent dialogue on the issue, even after the event ends.
"This exercise does not aim to resolve everything in a few hours," Marois said.
"We will continue to work together Wednesday morning. The summit is an occasion to re-establish the dialogue, to rebuild bridges, to re-weave the links between us."
Many areas of concern are being discussed at the summit.
Student groups participating in the event are calling on the government to improve financial aid for students.
University administrators, meanwhile, say they need more funding to maintain the quality of higher education after the government cut their budgets in December by $125 million in 2012-13 and again in 2013-14.
The Marois government introduced several other ideas Monday, including the creation of a council for universities that would consult the Higher Education Department on teaching and research.
Political opponents, however, said Monday that they hope the summit turns out to be more than a government PR stunt.
Interim Liberal leader Jean-Marc Fournier said he didn't know where the Marois government was going to find the money to maintain the province's universities, after the PQ cancelled his party's proposed tuition increases.
"The reality is we need to have quality in our system," Fournier said. "For that, we need to have money in the system."
He said Quebec students pay about 12 cents out of every dollar in the university system.
"Already the taxpayer is paying a lot," he said.
"Does he have to pay everything? I think it must be something (where) there's equity."
Quebec, Canada's most-indebted province, has the lowest university tuition in the country.
Even though the hike would still have left Quebec with some of the lowest tuition in Canada, many students insisted they opposed the increase out of fear it would further limit access to higher education.