Education Summit Begins in Montreal
Read our full coverage of the Summit on Higher Education for an update on day two.
After months of anticipation, debate, protest and political posturing, Quebec’s promised two-day summit on higher education began today.
Held at the Arsenal art gallery in Griffintown, the summit is set to take place over two days.
Monday’s schedule is based around four main themes for discussion: the quality of education and university governance, research and collaboration between schools and communities, funding of education and, accessibility.
Tensions have been building towards the summit over the past few months, and many are sceptical of the outcome. Some participants have complained about the lack of communication from the government leading up to the summit.
The student group Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante, which represents approximately 70,000 Quebec students, has chosen to boycott the summit after their ultimatum to the education minister Pierre Duchesne was not met. This decision has received mixed reactions from students.
ASSÉ will however be holding a large demonstration on Tuesday.
Several instances of vandalism occurred before the summit began on Monday morning, including at the offices of minister Duchesne and former student leader turned Parti Québécois MNA Léo Bureau-Blouin.
Several protests are planned throughout the day, including one large demonstration scheduled for 4:30 p.m.
- The schedule for the day’s events can be found here.
- An English informational document on the summit as a whole can be found here.
- A list on the invited guests by category can be found here.
The Link will be live-blogging the day’s events and updating our Storify here after each of the day’s four main events.
Part One: “The quality of education and university governance.”
For all the hype and excitement surrounding the summit, the tone of Monday morning’s discussions was surprisingly calm.
The Parti Québécois called for the creation of a framework law on universities, the establishment of a National Council of Universities and for a revision of university finances.
Many of the representatives around the table in the main hall of the Arsenal Gallery said that there needs to be closer coordination between universities. Marois said the Council could plug the gap in communication.
“There needs to be an organization that has the information, that knows whether there are problems of communication,” said Marois.
While many of the representatives approved of the plan for a Council, there was disagreement about its composition.
Yves Thomas Dorval, spokesman for the Conseil du patronat du Québec, argued that the Council should be made up of “competent external members”—meaning members of civil society, outside of the university community. On the other hand, Louise Roy of the Conseil d’administration des universites québécoises said the Council should be composed of internal members.
Representing the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, Martine Desjardins pointed out that universities require a unique approach to governance.
“Universities are not corporations, and require their own form of governance,” she said.
Many in the room expressed concern about triggering another wave of student protests.
“It is essential that Quebec does not relive the events of the past year,” said Jean Vaillancourt of the Université du Québec.
In a brief interview on his way to the gallery, Yvon Boudreau, a consultant at the Fédération des chambres de commerce du Québec, said he had “very low expectations” for the summit.
“We know that this activity is held essentially to avoid another student crisis,” he said, adding that he is hopeful another strike will be avoided.
“There is no reason to throw Quebec upside down over a $200 to $300 hike in tuition fees. There is no veritable problem of accessibility to universities,” he said.
Part Two: “Research and collaboration between schools and communities.”
For the second themed discussion of the day, participants at the summit filed into the hangar-like meeting room to tackle the issue of funding research and fostering collaboration between universities.
The standout plank in the government’s platform was a $1.4 billion investment in university funding over seven years. Although members of the government said the details of the investment are yet to be worked out, they earmarked 50 per cent of that sum for investment in teaching, as well as in funding for first generation, First Nations and disabled university students. Also included was service to regional schools, and 25 per cent allotted for research.
Denis Coderre of the Université de Québec welcomed the news of future investment in higher education.
“We are doing well so far. The problem is that we are getting weaker [on se fragilise],” he said. “If we were to reduce financing, there would be consequences for the quality of education.”
Critics of the government’s plan, including the Conference of Rectors and Principals of Quebec Universities pointed out that the planned investment does not include the cutbacks projected for the next two academic years.
In an interview with The Link after the discussion, Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec spokesperson Elaine Laberge commended the government for pledging to increase funding to students with special needs, but also criticized the investment plan for being too vague.
“Their message is to invest, without putting any structure in place. These institutions need to know what to do with the money,” she said.
Part Three: “Funding of education, and accessibility.”
A long day of discussions in the Summit on Higher Education ended with an impasse on tuition fees.
The Parti Québécois government unveiled its plan to raise tuition fees by an average of 3 per cent, which would cost each student roughly $70 more per year. Minister of Higher Education, Pierre Duchesne, said the government’s hand was forced on the issue of tuition.
“Last year’s crisis led us to make certain decisions, and the one on tuition seems unavoidable,” he said.
President Martine Desjardins and other student representatives of the FEUQ criticized the government for its “lack of vision.” Speaking at day’s end, Desjardins urged the government to reconsider other ways of supplementing university funding.
She and Françoise David of Quebec Solidaire argued that students are already having difficulty paying tuition, and increasing it any more would limit accessibility to higher education.
The underfinancing of universities was a recurrent theme in yesterday’s discussions. In the third and most contentious segment of yesterday’s discussions, on the “sustainable financing of universities,” CAQ party leader Francois Legault asked the summit to address the “elephant in the room”—the $124 million in projected cuts to university budgets for this year and next.
“It’s very nice to say we’ll invest [in higher education] until 2018, but we run the risk of damaging our universities by making the cuts,” said Legault.
Premier Marois argued that cuts are necessary in the short term.
“I stand to say and repeat that we proposed different strategies to attenuate the impact [of the cutbacks]. Know that there is reinvestment happening,” she said.
In an interview with The Link, Alan Shepard, president of Concordia and representative of the CREPUQ at the summit, approved of the PQ’s proposal to raise tuition.
“I think it was a fascinating day,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what to expect. Everyone had a chance to say their piece. The government took some bold moves, and that interests me.
“They’re going in the right direction. Three per cent is a start.”
Read our Brief History of Education in Quebec for more info on the issue.