In a series of moves aimed at calming his province's angry student movement and at winning public sympathy, Premier Jean Charest has made an offer to soften the blow of planned tuition hikes.
The premier told a news conference Friday that he's willing to phase in the $1,625 increase over seven years — instead of five. His government also wants to index increases to the rate of inflation, while enriching the loans-and-bursaries program.
On the whole, those changes would mean that, instead of annual increases of $325 for five years, tuition would rise $254 for seven straight years.
His government also wants to index future increases to the rate of inflation, and says it's willing to improve the loans-and-bursaries program.
The premier called that a responsible way to keep Quebec's universities well-funded and competitive — without reaching once again into the pockets of taxpayers.
As for the tuition freeze being demanded by protesters in increasingly unruly protests? Speaking directly to Quebecers, Mr. Charest said he will not bend.
“I want to address all Quebecers to tell you: My government will never agree to act, or to concede, under the threat of violence and blackmail,” Mr. Charest said.
There appeared to be a two-fold strategy at the news conference hosted by Mr. Charest and Education Minister Line Beauchamp outside the premier's office in Quebec City.
The first was to split the student movement, and isolate its most radical faction from the rest.
The second was to win public sympathy on an issue that could — sooner or later — become a central issue in an election campaign.
They asked students to take time to discuss and reflect on their offer, without making a knee-jerk reply. They also asked the remaining “striking” students, in the meantime, to go back to class and put an end to their weeks-long walkout.
“For an effort of 50 cents a day, it strikes me that it's no longer time to compromise their diplomas,” Ms. Beauchamp said.
“I'm inviting students to go back to class. Because the solution proposed by the government is fair and equitable.”
And in a message aimed at the broader public, the premier and education minister repeatedly mentioned respect for taxpayers and cast the student cause as much ado over 50 cents per day.
There is some speculation among the Quebec punditry that if the current unrest continues, Mr. Charest could call an election and campaign on the issue. He will begin the fifth year of his mandate in late 2012.
“We're not there,” Mr. Charest said.
He called it “grotesque” that anyone would believe he might cynically use the issue to get re-elected. Polls suggest that his government, which is otherwise deeply unpopular, actually has public support when it comes to the tuition hikes.