The Post-Summit Scramble

Next Steps for University Leaders

Concordia University President Alan Shepard Photo Corey Pool
FEUQ President Martime Desjardins Photo Corey Pool
CSU VP External Simon-Pierre Lauzon Photo Corey Pool

Cameron Monagle says the Quebec government referring to the indexation of tuition fees as a “relative freeze” is a “load of baloney.”

The Federation étudiante universitaire du Québec’s internal affairs coordinator addressed the Concordia Student Union council last week to explain the federation’s feelings regarding the outcome of Quebec’s Summit on Higher Education.

Monagle explained that the government’s decision to index tuition fees to the level of growth in household disposable income levels would result in a hike of $70 next year.

Indexation—pushed through by the Parti Québécois without a consensus from the summit’s participants—is not the only policy change to result from the summit.

The government is now taking steps to address concerns that student groups and others have been voicing for some time.

“Everything pretty much except tuition went really well,” he said.

In the weeks and months to come, five newly formed chantiers de travail, or working groups, will try to tackle various projects to reform the system, including a new law on universities, the creation of a council on universities, improvements to the CEGEP network and changes to institutional fees and the university funding model.

The summit also resulted in a boost for financial aid and a $1.7 billion reinvestment in the higher education system.

Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec

Although FEUQ President Martine Desjardins says she’s disappointed vis-à-vis indexation, she’s optimistic about what else was gained at the summit.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” she said, explaining her satisfaction with the gains to student aid, and positive outlook regarding the potential outcomes of the chantiers du travail.

Desjardins said that although it was clear to her that the government had not been willing to negotiate on indexation at the summit, it would be inaccurate to say that everything had been predetermined when it came to other aspects, like what would be dealt with in the chantiers.

For example, the FEUQ was able to push the government to establish a chantier on university financing to deal with the issue of mandatory institutional fees.

“The government didn’t know we were going to put this on the table,” Desjardins said. “When you saw the video you see that Pierre Duchesne wasn’t aware that this was coming up.”

For this reason and others, Desjardins asserted that the summit would have been a “catastrophe” if the FEUQ hadn’t gone.

“People say, ‘[The Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante] did a good thing boycotting the summit,” she said. “But if the FEUQ did the same thing [as ASSÉ], we would be facing not only the tuition fee hikes but also new institutional fees with no [improvements] to the financial aid program.”

Boycotting the summit would have also meant missing out on participating in the chantiers. Now, the federation is set to be very active in these working groups, including one concerning financial aid—which will be headed by an ex-president of the FEUQ.

A different chantier will deal with the creation of a council on universities, something that the FEUQ has long been calling for.

“The mandate that will be included in this council is very important,” Desjardins said. “We want to have a look into what’s going on inside the universities. So it will be a fight again in the chantiers for sure, between us and the administrations.”

Additionally, Desjardins thinks that the possibility of an umbrella law for universities, the task of another chantier, will “make sure that we will have a real discussion about where the university is going.”

The FEUQ hopes that a more rounded definition of the collective mission of Quebec universities will be included in the law.

“A lot of people are saying that [the mission] is teaching and research,” she said. “But services for the collectivity should also be included.”

Desjardins said that the FEUQ’s past research and firm policy stances, already voted on by its member associations, will allow the federation to begin work immediately in the chantiers.

“We need to be very prepared,” she said. “And we are.”

Concordia Student Union

“We’ve made significant gains,” said CSU VP External Simon-Pierre Lauzon when asked what he thought of the outcome of the summit. “Of course, we didn’t win on everything,” he added.

“We are satisfied with most of what happened there, save the indexation.”

Lauzon said he was still writing a report on the summit to present to council, and that the CSU had not yet formulated any policy pertaining to the chantiers.

When the report is finished, however, Lauzon plans to “start working on what exactly we’re going to be pushing for at those chantiers.

“At this point, we need to look at the individual files [and see] what we can accomplish,” he said.

Although the CSU will not sit directly on any of the chantiers, it will be represented at them by the FEUQ.

“We’re going to be involved in a direct manner where we meet and decide what we’re going to be pushing for,” Lauzon said.

Lauzon said he was satisfied with the federation’s work at the summit.

“If you compare the membership of the FEUQ to the membership of other national student organizations and the results that they brought back from the summit, I think we are largely winning,” he said.

“I think that’s a proof that we took the right approach, that we have tangible gains for our students.”

Alan Shepard

Describing his mixed impression of the Summit on Higher Education last week, Concordia President Alan Shepard said, “Like most negotiations, nobody went away from them feeling like they were the great victor.”

Shepard supported several of the government’s decisions, including its plans to create a National Council of Universities and to index tuition to the annual growth in disposable income—which would amount to a roughly $70 increase in tuition per full-time student per year.

On the other hand, Shepard warned that the university spending cuts mandated by the government might endanger the quality of higher education in Quebec.

As Premier Pauline Marois and Minister of Higher Education Pierre Duchesne announced at the summit last week, the government is standing by its decision to trim $250 million from universities’ budgets despite heavy opposition from the Conference of Rectors and Principals of Quebec Universities, as well as from other quarters.

Late on Feb. 25, the government reached a deal with CREPUQ allowing universities to stagger the $124 million in cuts initially planned for this year until Apr. 30, 2014.

Shepard said university rectors are still negotiating with the government to find a way to soften the impact of the cuts.

“For me, the government—they don’t really want to make these cuts, and we’re finding it difficult to do it. So everybody has been looking for a solution that would meet everyone’s needs,” he said.

For Concordia, the spending cuts amount to $13.2 million a year for two years, out of a total operating budget of roughly $400 million.

“It’s not an inconsequential amount of money,” said Shepard.

Referring to a CREPUQ report, Shepard argued that there is a “substantial gap” in per-student funding between universities in Quebec and the funding in the rest of Canada.

“We need to be working for the prosperity of our alumni—their intellectual prosperity, their cultural, their economic prosperity,” he said.

“I want to be the president of one of Canada’s great universities, and I think you guys want to be graduates of a place that you’re really proud of, that had the resources it had to deliver an intellectual environment, the research opportunities, and co-op opportunities—whatever it may be that you’re seeking here,” Shepard said.

Financial Aid:
At the Summit for Higher Education, the Quebec government announced it was raising the parental contribution threshold (the income level at which parents are expected to contribute to their child’s university expenses) from $28,000 to $45,000, and that it will award an additional $263 million in bursaries from 2013-14 to 2018-19.

Five different chantiers de travail, or working groups, will be formed as a result of the summit. The groups, respectively, will be tasked with:
1. Drafting an umbrella act for universities, which will establish governance rules
2. Establishing a structure for a Quebec-wide council on universities, the Conseil national des universités
3. Making improvements to the CEGEP system
4. Revising university financing policy, including mandatory institutional fees
5. Improving the financial aid system