Playing With Weighted Dice

Results of Higher Education Summit Seem Already Set

Graphic Caity Hall

Quebec’s much-anticipated Summit on Higher Education is set to take place at the end of February, but it seems the dice have already been loaded against students.

The Parti Québécois government has left nothing to chance, predetermining the outcome of the two-day summit. What remains is for student leaders to show up, smile, shake hands and be paraded around as if they were in a scripted television drama.

Last November, in announcing that the PQ government would keep its electoral promise of holding a Summit on Higher Education, Premier Pauline Marois called the education summit “vital” for Quebec society.

“Our prosperity rests on knowledge and education,” she said in November of the summit. “I hope this is a fruitful debate for all.”

But it seems not everyone is hoping for a fruitful debate—on Jan. 29, Quebec’s higher education minister, Pierre Duchesne, rejected calls for free tuition and now seems interested only in the indexation of tuition fees.

That’s an odd position for someone who claimed that “no way of thinking or position will be predetermined” ahead of the summit.

“The consensus is clearly not around indexation,” Martine Desjardins, president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “Even at the summit table with all of the people involved in the university milieu, we don’t hear the word ‘indexation’ except when it comes from the government.”

In another move that calls into question the PQ’s resolve to work collaboratively with the university milieu, the government cut $140 million from universities’ budgets for the 2012-13 school year.

The PQ didn’t wait until the education summit to discuss the cuts with students and university administrators; it just decided to unilaterally take action, putting universities in a precarious position, forcing at least Concordia to revise their budget for the fourth time this year.

Meanwhile, the Quebec Liberal Party hasn’t shown itself to be receptive to hearing out actual stakeholders either.

Leadership candidate Pierre Moreau—who has positioned himself as an advocate for youth issues in the race to succeed Jean Charest—said in the first leadership debate that he was interested in “opening the debate on the
pertinence of CEGEPs.”

While he insisted in a post-debate press conference that he opposed abolishing the CEGEP system, he also told CBC Montreal’s Daybreak, “This year, we’re lagging behind the rest of Canada as far as graduation is concerned at the university level. CEGEPs are supposed to prepare our students for the universities. We have to ask the question [of whether we should keep CEGEPs].”

What Moreau seems to misunderstand is that CEGEPs aren’t just preparatory schools for university; for many students, they offer an alternative to university.

The uniqueness of Quebec’s system of higher education is that students can graduate from CEGEP with a technical or professional diploma that already prepares them for a good job, even if they choose not to attend university.

CEGEPs also have a role to play in making higher education more accessible; they have lower tuition fees than universities and, unlike universities, are often located in less-populated regions outside large cities.

Student groups and teachers’ unions quickly criticized Moreau for his views, and the Liberal Party also distanced itself from his comments. Gerry Sklavounos, the party’s spokesperson on matters related to higher education, said categorically that Moreau “does not reflect the position” of the party.

Regardless of where one stands politically and ideologically, or what one’s position is on tuition hikes or CEGEPs, I think we can all agree that when politicians are formulating policy without consulting stakeholders, the result is often unsatisfactory.

The complexity of the issues surrounding higher education is daunting. The youth unemployment rate in Canada is around 14 per cent—roughly double the overall national rate.

A new report published just last week by TD Economics found that youth unemployment will hold back our economy considerably in the next 18 years—reducing economic activity by 1.3 per cent of the Canadian gross domestic product, or $23 billion.

And, as a new CBC documentary called Generation Jobless pointed out last week when it aired for the first time, many young and educated people accumulate mountains of student debt but then struggle to find meaningful jobs in their fields after they graduate from university.

The question that needs to be asked at the summit on higher education is whether our universities are actually broadening our intellectual horizons while simultaneously preparing us for the workforce. Essentially, how can universities be of greater value to students and to society as a whole?

Instead, the bickering over tuition fees continues, with the government already having made its mind up and being unwilling to truly listen to what student leaders have to say.

Taking place over just two days, it’s unlikely much will come of the summit. What’s certain is that the cards have already fallen and universities’ fates have already been decided in the back rooms of the Hôtel du Parlement in Quebec City, without any meaningful consultation with students.