By Neale McDevitt
Yesterday morning, at the opening of the Summit on Higher Education, and during the two sessions that followed, both Premier Pauline Marois and Higher Education Minister Pierre Duchesne, spoke in terms of unity and coming together to find consensus following last year’s “social crisis” marked by a summer of student unrest.
Marois told more than 60 stakeholders from various sectors gathered in Montreal’s Griffintown district that the “the goal of the Summit is to re-establish dialogue and to build bridges,” while Duchesne said “the population doesn’t want division, but a vision.” And, truth be told, their words rang true at times, as traditional opponents seemed willing to meet each other partway at least during discussions on such topics as university governance, support for research and the quality of higher education.
Last night, however, the elephant in the room finally cleared its throat.
In her opening remarks of the day’s fourth and final session, on tuition and accessibility, Marois announced that, beginning in September, tuition fees will increase by three per cent. “This proposal appears to be the most just and the fairest for our society,” Marois told delegates of her government’s plan to index tuition based on a family’s disposable income.
The proposal was met with almost universal disappointment, not going far enough in either direction to appease those groups who were seeking a continuation of the tuition freeze or free tuition altogether, or those who were lobbying for tuition increases to help address the chronic underfunding issue. Hardly surprising considering that the issue of student tuition was at the very core of the massive demonstrations last year.
“Let’s be frank, the Quebec experiment with low tuition rates has been a failure,” said Principal Heather Munroe-Blum, representing McGill and the Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec (CREPUQ). “Quebec graduation rates are lower than the Canadian average and lower than the average in OECD nations. Quebec families earning less than $25,000 annually, have a 18 per cent participation rate whereas in Ontario, that rate is 39 per cent.”
To improve accessibility to university and graduation rates, Munroe-Blum said, the government must instead focus on a four-pronged approach that includes better education, more effective engagement of students in primary and secondary school; increased financial aid for university students; better support systems for university students; and an environment that is conducive to full-time studies.
“We share the government’s concern with university students who have insufficient financial means, including those who are first-generation,” said Munroe-Blum. “But we believe firmly that the money [for student support] should follow the student, not a system of universities. Low-income students are everywhere in the system, not just in the regions. McGill, for example, has one in four of its students who are first in their family to go to university.”
“What we need is enhanced support systems and additional resources for universities so that we can better support those students in need, be they first-generation university students or not, regardless of where they come from or where they pursue their studies.”
For his part, François Legault, leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec wasn’t impressed with the government’s plan. “The proposed indexation will do absolutely nothing to solve the problem of serious underfunding for our universities for the next two years,” said Legault, noting that the government should establish a modulated tuition structure in which students training for professions that will garner higher salaries, should pay higher tuition. “I don’t think we can afford to have a vision and ambitions for [the future of ] Quebec but then say we won’t do anything for 2013-14 and 2014-2015.
The protests from the other side – groups pushing for a tuition freeze or zero tuition – came fast and sometimes furious. “Indexation… is inadmissible,” said Françoise David, Québec solidaire co-leader, saying any increase in tuition is “an obstacle” for many students, especially students with children, women and students from low-income households. Instead, David suggested tax increases for banks and other financial institutions to help defer costs for students.
Some student leaders were angered by the indexation plan, perhaps with images of a red-square-wearing Marois banging a pot during a demonstration less than a year ago fresh in mind. “Is the government making a choice for the future or is it strictly an electoral calculation?” asked Tierry Morel-Laforce, from the Fédération étudiante universitaire Québec.
All the major labour unions at the table seemed in agreement with the idea of maintaining the tuition freeze while working toward zero tuition. While Louise Chabot, President of the Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ) agreed that Quebec students alrteady enjoy the lowest tuition rates in the country, she didn’t see that as a bad thing. “The CSQ backed the student movement and we believe in a tuition freeze with the eventual goal of zero tuition,” said Chabot. “It is true that Quebec has the lowest tuition rates in Canada. And why not? It sets us apart and it sets us apart us in a good way in the same way our early childhood services set us apart.”
And while student leaders like Martine Desjardins of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec made emotional pleas for cash-strapped students, other delegates – especially representatives from industry – weren’t buying the argument. It is time, they said, that Quebec students start investing more into their own education – an education from which they will benefit substantially for the rest of their lives.
“We have to look at the facts. In Quebec, students contribute 12.7 per cent of universities’ total revenues… easily the lowest when you compare that with Ontario (29.8 per cent) and western Canada (19.1 per cent),” said Yves-Thomas Dorval, Président du Conseil du patronat du Québec.
He also noted that the proposed three-per-cent hike represents an average increase of $70 a year per student, or $1.35 a week. “I hope we won’t see more problems in the streets [as a result] of an indexation of $1.35,” said Dorval, perhaps with an eye on last night’s clash between the police and protesters marching from Cabot Square to Griffintown in which two people were arrested.
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