Tuition Stalemate at Summit Meeting

Debate on Quality vs. Accessibility Continues

Photo Jane Gatensby

At the second thematic meeting in the run-up to the summit on higher education, the Quebec university community failed to come to a consensus on the issue of tuition fees.

Held over Dec. 13 and 14 at l’Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, the meeting focused on accessibility and participation in post-secondary studies, and the fee issue occupied center stage.

“There is work to be done for us to come to an agreement,” said Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology Minister Pierre Duchesne at the meeting’s opening conference.

The Minister has been under fire from both students and administrations after announcing that universities would have to absorb $124 million in cuts by the end of April.

“It’s a responsible action, but one that is going to take a lot of effort,” Duchesne said in defense of the cuts, explaining once again that they were necessary to balance the budget, and that extra funding would be
provided next year.

It was against this backdrop of tension–which included presentations, workshops and a roundtable discussion–that the meeting began. The government promoted its long-held position of indexing tuition fees to the cost of living.

Provincial student groups the Fédération étudiante universitaire de Québec and the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec both argued against indexation, asking for a continuation of the tuition freeze awarded in September, as well as extra support for financial aid programs.

“Forty per cent of Quebec students don’t get any support from their parents,” argued FECQ president Éliane Laberge.

Both groups accused the government of misunderstanding students’ financial difficulty.

“There are many differences between what the program [of loans and bursaries] proposes and the realities of university accessibility,” said FEUQ president Martine Desjardins.

The Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante, or ASSÉ, called on the government to put an end to tuition fees altogether. Spokesperson Blandine Parchemal said that that free education would have “positive social consequences,” and called it “only a matter of political will.”

This was echoed by Quebec’s union confederations, also present at the meeting.

Mario Beauchemain spoke at the summit for the Centrale des syndicats du Québec, a union confederation that represents over 190,000 workers in sectors including education, healthcare and social work.

“There is a direct link between tuition fees and participation in post-secondary studies,” said Beauchemain. He added that tuition hikes in the ‘90s resulted in smaller enrollment rates.

On the other end of the spectrum, CREPUQ, the conference of university rectors and principals, was in favour of tuition hikes, saying that accessibility might mean sacrifices in quality.

“In France, the public university system is very accessible, but quality has been going down for 50 years, so much so that students are leaving,” said CREPUQ delegate Michel Patry.

CREPUQ’s decision was supported by business associations and the Universite du Québec network.

“The tuition freeze is a progressive de-funding […] the government has already made a huge compromise […] we will all perhaps need to make another compromise,” said Université de Québec President Sylvie Beauchamp.

Concordia President Alan Shepard was present at the Summit as a CREPUQ delegate, but did not contribute to the discussions.

Accessibility Issues

At the summit, access to higher education was presented as a complex mix of financial, social, geographic and educational elements. Among the issues raised were cultural factors that influence accessibility and participation.

“Quebec students take more time to complete their studies [than in the rest of Canada], and the dropout rate is higher,” said Duchesne.

He went on to mention that proportionally, fewer francophones obtained university degrees than anglophones and allophones, and that “the situation for First N+ations is even more worrisome.”

Socioeconomic factors were also called into question at the meeting.

“Only 17 per cent Quebec students whose parents don’t have a post-secondary diploma go to university,” said Laberge.

Denis Sylvain, who represented student associations for mature students at the summit, highlighted the financial issues that face this age demographic.

“If someone loses his job and wants to return to full-time studies, he can’t get financial aid, because his income the previous year was too high,” he said.

Geographic accessibility was also discussed, and many participants highlighted the importance of satellite campuses in encouraging regional enrollment.

ASSÉ was critical of this point, arguing that de-localized campuses put too much emphasis on programs that reflected the needs of employers in the their regions.

“Do we just want to train a workforce in the regions, or do we want to offer a quality education on the entire territory of Quebec?” asked ASSÉ spokesperson Nadia Lafrenière.

Desjardins “Very Concerned” Over Cuts

In an interview with The Link just before the meeting began, FEUQ president Martine Desjardins said that although she was disappointed by the recent budget cuts, she didn’t want them to be a barrier to discussion.

“Hopefully we will all say that we are not in favor of these cuts and move forward, because there are a lot of things that need our attention,” she said.

Desjardins is “very concerned” that the cuts will have “effects on the services for our students.”

“We’ll see what our student associations do,” she replied when asked how the FEUQ would respond if the government’s plan to instate indexation would be adopted come February. “Every time the government proposed a tuition fee hike […] they propose action and mobilization.”

CSU Prepares for February Summit

The Concordia Student Union also plans to implicate itself in the summit, and has put up posters over the past week encouraging student involvement in its planning process.

CSU VP External Simon-Pierre Lauzon said that he and a group of volunteers were currently doing research to put together a series of propositions for the summit.

The propositions will be put on a website where students can vote on them in January.

“People can go and take the time to get informed about the issues, cast their votes [and] the CSU can go and prioritize for the summit as well as for the upcoming years in terms of the academic portfolio and the priorities that we have,” Lauzon said.