Tuition hikes to roll back, PQ promises

If Pauline Marois, who will be the first woman to hold the office of Quebec Premier, holds to her promise to overturn the outgoing government's plan to raise tuition fees by $254 per year over seven years, the University will lose millions in revenue, said Provost Anthony Masi.

By Doug Sweet

No wave of any one colour engulfed Quebec in Tuesday’s election, perhaps putting to rest the idea that any election following the stunning 2011 federal vote will necessarily provoke a sudden and massive shift of voters in any particular direction, even with the electorate in a volatile mood.

But if there was no defining blue wave, it could be observed that a stubborn Liberal red tide refused to ebb – at least to the extent pollsters had predicted. As a result, the Parti Québécois came up short of the 63 seats needed for a majority in the 125-seat National Assembly. The PQ captured 54 seats, to the Liberals’ surprising 50, the Coalition Avenir du Québec’s 19 and Québec Solidaire’s two.

The minority result calls into question Premier-elect Pauline Marois’s ability to fully launch key elements of her platform, including, notably, a renewed push toward sovereignty, a new “charter of secularism,” a tougher Bill 101 language law and a roll-back of the Liberal government’s tuition increase.

This last one, of course, would touch McGill the most directly. If Marois, who will be the first woman to hold the office of Quebec Premier, holds to her promise to overturn the Liberals’ plan to raise tuition fees by $254 per year over seven years, the University will lose millions in revenue, said Provost Anthony Masi.

“By issuing a decree to roll back the increases to previous levels means that our pre-announced deficit of $7 million will increase to $13 million for the 2013 fiscal year,” Masi said. “But remember, the increases over five years were to have been cumulative. So, think of it this way, the shortfalls will be $6 million, $12 million, $18 million, $24 million, and $30 million, assuming that the current student population remains stable. The expected total losses in revenues therefore would be $90 million for McGill.”

Masi said it is too early to say what effects this will have on McGill’s budgeting.

“While we are studying several unpleasant scenarios, until we actually see the alternatives that the Government of Quebec will put on the table for providing additional revenues to Quebec’s already cash-strapped university system, I am not in a position to indicate the magnitude of cuts that we at McGill will have to endure.”

During the election campaign, Marois refused to adopt a promise to abolish tuition fees altogether, but said a PQ government would index fees according to the inflation rate.

At her news conference the day after the election, Marois reiterated her intention to cancel the tuition increase “by decree” and to overturn Bill 78, which established rules and stiff fines governing protests and demonstrations. She also said the government would hold a summit on higher education in Quebec.

At his news conference the day after the election, CAQ leader François Legault said he would work to find a compromise between Marois’s plan to index fees and his own party’s support for fee increases similar to those of the outgoing Liberal government.

“There’s no question that if the new government follows through with its plan, it will present McGill and other Quebec universities with additional challenges,” said Olivier Marcil, Vice-Principal (Communications and External Relations). “We are ready to work closely with the government and other parties to find solutions to the problem of the chronic under-funding of Quebec universities.

“Tuition increases or not, there is an unavoidable reality that Quebec universities are asked to make up a $700-million gap a year with their peers in other provinces. It’s a particular problem for McGill because of our position in the world and the constraints imposed on us by our infrastructure costs.”

Marcil expressed shock and sadness at what appears to have been an assassination attempt on Marois at the Parti Québécois post-election party at the Metropolis theatre on Ste. Catherine St. that ended with one man shot to death, another seriously wounded and a single male suspect in custody. The violent incident, which included a fire being set directly behind the old movie theatre’s stage area, left Quebecers stunned and searching for answers. Richard Henry Bain, a businessman from north of Mont Tremblant, is facing 16 charges in connection with the incident.

On the student side, the election results will probably bring a breather in the protest movement, said Robin Reid-Fraser, Vice-President (External) for the Student Society of McGill University. “I think it will change the focus,” Reid-Fraser said. “If we’re going to have this summit in the next few months, it gives us an opportunity to bring together students and to open up the conversation.

“There’s definitely a feeling of relief and it seems like an opportunity to take a break” from the continuing protests and demonstrations that marked the spring term at universities and CEGEPs in Quebec, she said.

Late Wednesday, Premier Jean Charest confirmed that he was stepping away from his 28-year career in federal and provincial politics, having been defeated in his Sherbrooke riding Tuesday night. Charest drew widespread praise for a classy departure and speculation began immediately about who might replace him, both on an interim basis and over the longer term.