Toward the Table
Students, Government, Third Parties Plan for Education Summit
After months of anticipation, the Parti Québécois government has announced that its summit on universities will take place mid-February—almost a year after the Quebec student strikes began.
First put forth on the PQ’s July 2011 platform, the summit aims to revisit issues at the root of this spring’s student strikes. The aim is to seek out solutions to issues relating to university education in Quebec, including the controversial topic of tuition fees.
Speaking at a press conference earlier this month, the summit’s planners—Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, Member of the National Assembly Léo Bureau-Blouin and Higher Education Minister Pierre Duchesne—outlined their ambitious goals for the summit, set to take place over two days in Montreal.
“The reprise of dialogue will allow us to come to […] a collective definition of the role of post-secondary studies in Quebec,” said Duchesne, adding that the summit would be held to address the needs of “the almost half-million students in our universities and CEGEPs.”
Leading up to the summit, the government will host four thematic meetings, each aimed at delving into a different issue faced by Quebec’s universities.
The first, centred on educational quality, will be held in Quebec City on Nov. 29 and Nov. 30.
“The goal is to come to the summit having already clarified certain things,” said Duchesne.
Representation at the summit will be split between student federation representatives, the government and external parties, like the Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec and Quebec’s major trade unions.
While the PQ has announced that it will be arguing for the indexation of tuition fees to inflation, others around the table will have different objectives.
Representing over 125,000 students, the Fédération des étudiants universitaires du Québec plans to counter the PQ’s indexation proposal during the summit.
In an interview with The Link last week, FEUQ President Martine Desjardins made clear that her organization believes “without compromise” that indexation is a form of tuition hike.
“Having another tuition freeze is our main objective,” she said.
“Proposing tuition fee hikes while having no discretionary objectives doesn’t make sense. [Students] have had indexation since 1994 actually, because we’re paying more and more administration fees,” she added.
Also among the FEUQ’s objectives for the summit are the cancellation of fee hikes for international students and the negotiation of a better financial aid deal.
“To have $7.00 a day for your food, when we know that, well, milk for your Kraft Dinner is $3.25. […] You don’t have enough money for your macaroni,” said Desjardins.
Desjardins called the FEUQ’s rapport with the government “more open” than it had been under the Liberal Party, but stressed the importance of standing firm.
“When you have this kind of relationship, sometimes you take a step back; you don’t put pressure. That’s what we don’t want to do,” she asserted.
Desjardins added that given the government’s minority status, students could not afford to be complacent.
“We need to make sure the government understands that we can go out into the streets again if we want to,” she said, stipulating that the first step was to come to the table and discuss the issues.
“Right now we have an opportunity to talk and put forth objectives for 10 to 15 years to come, so we’ll take it,” she said.
Also present at the table will be representatives from Quebec’s three main central union groups, including the Confédération des syndicats nationaux.
The CSN will be there to promote its own platform on education, and also to play its well-rehearsed role of negotiator.
In an interview with The Link, Francis Lagacé, vice-president of CSN’s Montreal chapter, tasked with the union’s education dossier, outlined the CSN’s objectives.
“We want the minister to do everything necessary to preserve the primary mission of universities, which is the development and transmission of knowledge and culture in the perspective of contributing to human, economic and social development,” he said.
The CSN expressed concern last month about ASSÉ’s possible absence from the summit.
“Obviously, ASSÉ is free to make its own decisions,” said Lagacé. “[But] I think it’s worth it for them to go, to have their voice heard and hear what others have to say.
“Our position is always to negotiate, to always try to find common ground. That’s how we work,” Lagacé explained, adding that, from an analytical perspective, “when an organization has pre-established positions that are radical, that put into question the very institutions that one is negotiating with, it makes the job more difficult.”
With or without ASSÉ, the CSN wants to promote the idea that “universities are not businesses, they are social institutions with a mission […] to serve the population […] to serve knowledge,” Lagacé said.
He expects this vision to conflict with that of university rectors, who “see [universities] as businesses.”
Speaking about university administrators’ high salaries and bonuses, Lagacé commented that “it’s not normal, it’s not a bank.”
The Concordia Student Union has also been planning for the summit, under the direction of VP External Simon-Pierre Lauzon.
“We’re definitely going to be involved, either through the FEUQ or actually going to the summit,” said Lauzon.
Some of the CSU’s objectives for the summit are maintaining a tuition freeze and stopping the international student tuition hike.
Although Concordia spokesperson Chris Mota was not able to tell The Link whether the Concordia’s administration would be participating in the summit directly, she said that the university would take the summit’s outcomes seriously.
“The bottom line is whatever directive the government gives us, we will respect,” she said.
She explained that Concordia representatives would be participating in some of the thematic meetings as part of CREPUQ, and that “a long-term vision, sources and process for university financing” was a priority for Concordia, along with “issues beyond tuition.”
When asked about the new budget, Mota quickly pointed out that the university remains underfunded.
“We’ve been reducing spending everywhere we can without that affecting the academic mission,” said Mota. “Eventually, if there is not significant funding, then it will impact other areas we don’t want to touch.
Unlike the FEUQ, the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante is not approaching the summit with much optimism. In fact, the organization is still unsure as to whether it will even attend.
In a press release following the announcement of the summit, ASSÉ spokesperson Jérémie Bédard-Wien cited the presence of “economic elites” at the summit as a problem for the organization.
He also pointed out that, in ASSÉ’s view, many of the possible outcomes of the summit—like the indexation of tuition fees and a “quality assurance” policy—seemed to have already been decided on by the government.
The matter is still open, however.
“Now is the time for reflection and debate in our student associations,” Bédard-Wien said.
ASSÉ’s member associations will meet next month to decide on whether or not the federation will send representatives to the summit.
Over the past few weeks, Higher Education Minister Pierre Duchesne has made a series of declarations that are unlikely to please university administrations.
First, he touted a report saying that universities were not, in fact, underfunded. Then, he told the press that university administrators would have to “tighten their belts.”
Finally, in connection with the unveiling of the PQ’s new budget on Tuesday, Duchesne proposed that universities adopt “an approach of reducing spending.”
Though the budget foresees a 2.7 per cent total increase in university spending, CREPUQ, the association of university rectors and principals, has said it is “worried” about the budget’s consequences for universities.
This means that the government will have its work cut out for itself at the summit, fighting students on indexation and rectors on funding.