Quebec Premier Pauline Marois declared the province’s postsecondary education crisis “behind us” after a two-day summit, but a powerful voice on the university stage is already dismissing part of the deal as “totally speculative” while thousands of students rally in the streets.
Heather Munroe-Blum, president and vice-chancellor of McGill University, said the government’s pledge of 1,000 new professors hinges on the province’s economic health, making new money uncertain after a decade of underfunding. She made her comments as thousands of students took to the streets of Montreal to protest against steps announced this week by the province that include a tuition hike and a budget cut to universities.
“It’s not clear where the money will come from,” Dr. Munroe-Blum said. “It leaves us taking very serious decisions about jobs, about programs, about support for students. And every job is a real person who makes a contribution to the well-being of the university.”
During the two-day summit on postsecondary education, the government promised the new professors as well as more generous student-aid programs. It also announced a 3-per-cent tuition fee increase, combined with a total $250-million budget cut to universities this year and next year. While skeptical of the approach, Dr. Munroe-Blum said it was “impressive” that Ms. Marois could be so positive about the outcome.
Thousands of students were less impressed, taking to the streets to protest for the first time since last spring, when rallies by huge crowds wounded the government of former Liberal premier Jean Charest, who lost the 2012 election. The peaceful demonstration degenerated into a confrontation with police who arrested about 10 people and used pepper spray to disperse the demonstrators.
At the summit, groups accepted the government pledges with some frustration. The group representing Quebec’s university faculty recently called for a “minimal” and “urgent” hiring of 813 professors this year, arguing that rapid growth in student enrolment has far outpaced new teaching hires.
Still, the Fédération québécoise des professeures et professeurs d’université (FQPPU) insisted the promise of future hires is a victory. “Sure, we have some problems right now, but I cannot say it is not a success – it is a success,” president Max Roy said.
The summit received mixed reviews.
At least five working groups will continue to review issues such as university funding and governance, as well as student-aid programs and college needs. The working groups will tackle several contentious issues over the next year or two, buying the government the social peace it can now use to reassure Quebeckers that last year’s crisis is over.
“I am quite at ease to say that the divisions are behind us,” Ms. Marois said at the end of the summit. “Because the former [Liberal] government failed to listen, it divided Quebeckers, it tore us apart. Now we can turn the page and with this summit give us a fresh start.”
Even the vocal student groups at the summit who fought hard for a freeze on tuition fees, were resigned to the fact that the hikes were here to stay.
“We are disappointed but we aren’t leaving the summit empty-handed,” said Martine Desjardins, president of the Quebec Federation of University Students. For instance, the government agreed to review the mandatory surcharges students pay universities. On average, universities bill students an extra $800 a year, which has long been viewed as a disguised tuition-fee increase.
“I don’t believe we came out losers in this exercise. We made important gains. …we will be able to participate in improving our institutions,” said Éliane Laberge, president of the Quebec Federation of College Students.
Nonetheless, several thousand students gathered for a noisy procession stretching the length of several city blocks, organized by the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ), a student group that boycotted the summit.
Spokesman Jeremie Bedard-Wien called the march a “show of force” to demonstrate “we will keep coming back” to argue against tuition increases.
Ms. Marois acknowledged that not all the problems have been solved and that tensions will remain. But she insisted it was nothing like last year’s crisis.
While additional university funding, however urgent, will not begin for another two years, most participants were satisfied that at least some people are talking at the table rather than demonstrating in the streets.
“It’s moved us forward in the civility with which people aired their opinions and perspectives. Did it solve all problems? No, but I’m not sure anyone expected it to. It’s a compressed amount of time,” said Alan Shepard, president of Concordia University.
In her blunt remarks and sharp criticism of the Marois government, Dr. Munroe-Blum insisted that universities will remain underfunded for several years to come.
“We’re being asked to cut across the system around a quarter of a billion dollars,” she said.
“It is not good fiscal management, it is not responsible financial management, to say we’re just going to pile on more debt. It is not sustainable … Without more investment in the system, we’re very fragile.”