New Government Won't Necessarily Heal Conflict at Quebec Universities

Christinne Muschi, Reuters

Pauline Marois, leader of the Parti Québécois and the next premier of Quebec, drew support from students protesting a planned tuition increase, but she made conflicting statements during the campaign about whether she would rescind the increase or just reduce it.
September 05, 2012

The narrow election of a new government in Quebec on Tuesday signals a possible turning point in the student protests that have rocked the province and its colleges and universities for eight months. The Parti Québécois, the political party that is set to take power, has pledged to abolish, or at least reduce, the tuition increase of $254 a year that spurred thousands of students to take to the streets.

But the issue of a tuition rise is far from resolved as the new premier, Pauline Marois, will have to forge compromises with political opponents to enact any part of her separatist party's agenda. The Parti Québécois fell several seats short of a majority and must cooperate informally with opposition parties to pass legislation.

On Wednesday, the day after the election, Ms. Marois said she intended to use a cabinet decree to cancel the tuition increase but made no mention of her election-campaign proposal of possibly indexing the fees to the cost of living.

As Tuesday's results confirmed the ouster of the Liberal Party and its leader, Jean Charest, Quebec student leaders were ecstatic. They had locked horns all year with Mr. Charest's government, which enacted the multiyear tuition increase and later won passage of a law to curb boycotts of classes and street demonstrations. Now with the Parti Québécois pledging to get rid of both measures, student leaders vowed to maintain pressure on the new government to keep its promises.

"We will be working hard to make sure they respect their commitment," said Martine Desjardins, president of the 125,000-member Federation of University Students of Quebec. "That will be the biggest issue we will be facing over the next week or so."

Ms. Desjardins called for action on a tuition freeze by the end of this month.

With students organizing for a street demonstration on September 22, as they have every month since their "Maple Spring" protest began, Ms. Desjardins warned that "the mobilization is continuing until we achieve our goal."

Conflicting Statements

One victor in the anti-tuition movement is a former student-strike leader who became the youngest person ever elected to Quebec's parliament. Leo Bureau-Blouin, 20, who ran as a Parti Québécois candidate, said "my aim now is to work to cancel the tuition-fee hike."

Without the tuition increase, which was set to take effect this week, colleges and universities stand to lose 332 million Canadian dollars, or about $337-million, in revenue they would have received over seven years. Ms. Marois has promised to hold a forum to discuss the financing of higher education in Quebec.

Some university leaders expressed hope that compromises could be forged to offset growing financial pressures on a system dependent on a provincial government that controls tuition rates and annual grants to institutions.

"Party leaders expressed their commitment to education in their speeches after the vote ... so education research will be on the agenda," Heather Munroe-Blum, principal of McGill University, told The Chronicle. "No doubt tuition fees will be one of the first items for the new government, but Madame Marois has expressed the view, not of freezing tuition, but reducing the [tuition] increase to the cost-of-living increase year over year." During the campaign, Ms. Marois made conflicting statements about whether her government would cut the entire tuition increase or just reduce it.

Quebec ranks dead last among Canada's provinces in per-student government spending on grants and tuition. Complicating the picture is the Quebec government's budget deficit, which has ballooned to 184 billion Canadian dollars, the highest among Canadian provinces. With a new premier who has previously shown little sympathy for university claims of chronic underfinancing, some university officials are alarmed about their fiscal future.

"We would have liked to talk more about the significant challenges we faced and the importance of ensuring a quality education for the next generation," the head of the provincial rectors association told the newspaper La Presse. Daniel Zizian, president and director general of the Conference of Rectors and Principals of Quebec Universities, said it was unfortunate that student protests had focused public attention only on tuition, not the sector's financial health.

At the start of the election campaign, his organization tried in vain to muster public support with a commentary on its Web site that stated "our universities had $620 million less than the average Canadian university to hire teachers and support staff; provide pedagogical and advisory services to students; maintain library collections, technological equipment, and laboratory instruments; and to meet other urgent needs."

Professors Worry

A growing number of Quebec professors are also concerned about the future of higher education in the province, but for different reasons. Many see a push by the government for public universities to act more like businesses and develop closer ties to industry.

In June the main faculty unions in Quebec and France announced they were joining forces to protect public universities, with plans for a forum this fall and another meeting next spring to discuss the issue.

"The fundamental mission of universities in France and Quebec, which is to provide public education and research, has undergone major changes," declared the Quebec Federation of Professors and France's National Syndicate of Higher Education Teachers. "These universities are increasingly subject to outside influences that go against public interest and weaken academic freedom, both of which are key components of the mission of universities."

Growing pressure on institutions to seek out private-sector funds for research and other activities alarms some faculty leaders. "We're seeing universities serving the economic plan of the government," said Max Roy, president of the Quebec union. "We've been asking for a public debate for many years about the function of a university in society."

A debate over Quebec's public universities predates the student protest.

Just before students took to the streets, a philosophy professor at the University of Quebec at Montreal published a French-language book whose title translates roughly as I Am Not a Small Business Enterprise. The author, Normand Baillargeon, said that "we're seeing the corporatization of public universities where they've become little businesses and professors are expected to bring in money, research what industry wants." He added: "We need a collective reflection on what we want from our universities."

Echoes Across Canada

The furor in Quebec has not gone unnoticed in the rest of Canada.

"It does not look good for the [Quebec] institutions," observed Glen A. Jones, a professor of higher education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. "The leadership across the country looks at the situation in Quebec with a certain shaking of the head and a 'please may this never happen to us.'"

Meanwhile, student leaders in the rest of the country have watched with envy as the Quebec protests drew up to 200,000 students from classes and led to regular monthly street demonstrations and clashes with the police.

Students in the rest of Canada pay up to three times as much in tuition as do their peers in Quebec. But outside Quebec, there has been no significant student revolt over fees.

"It's unlikely we'll see students striking in other provinces, but there will be an increase in lobbying and other actions planned for the fall," predicted Adam Awad, chair of the Canadian Federation of Students. "People forget that Montreal has more students per capita than other cities in North America, and the universities and colleges are close to each other, making organizing protests easier."

Arshy Mann, national bureau chief for Canadian University Press, a wire service for student newspapers, has been watching developments on campuses outside Quebec. "The Quebec protest has been a morale boost to those students in other provinces who are aware of tuition issues, but to be honest, most students have accepted that tuition goes up every year," he said. "Most of the student population take tuition increases for granted, and so they just go to class."