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Quebec's Premier Pauline Marois pauses as she answers a question during a news conference at the National Assembly in Quebec City in December 2012.

MATHIEU BELANGER/REUTERS

The Parti Québécois government is staging a crucial meeting in Sherbrooke this week on university funding to prepare for next month's summit on the future of postsecondary education. The anticipated showdown between students and university rectors at the meeting could prove decisive for the PQ, which promised to bring about peace in the province after last year's confrontation over tuition fee hikes. The controversy fuelled massive protests that helped defeat the former Liberal government.

The issue

University underfunding will be at the heart of this week's debate. University rectors told Premier Pauline Marois in a meeting on Monday that, according to a revised study, Quebec universities were receiving $800-million less than those in the rest of Canada. The Quebec government is challenging the figure. It acknowledges that universities have an accumulated operating deficit of well over $2-billion. But when capital funds, research funds and endowment funds are included into the figure, universities were in a surplus position, according to the Ministry of Higher Education's figures.

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Regardless of the numbers, Quebec universities are at a crossroads and face difficult choices. "We are almost at a point of no return, and if nothing is done, we will soon hit a brick wall," warned Luce Samoisette, president of the Conference of Rectors and Principals of Quebec Universities.

The players

In the days heading into this week's meeting, students have locked horns with university rectors, accusing them of artificially creating the appearance of deficits. The universities fired back, saying the students falsely undermined their credibility with the public. The students contend that while Quebec universities claim to be underfunded, the province spends more per university student than Ontario does.

"All we are doing is demanding that universities answer our questions," said Martine Desjardins, president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec. "It is one thing to undertake comparative studies on how Quebec universities are being underfinanced, but they must also state publicly what the needs are and define how the money should be used." The government faces the difficult challenge of offering stable funding for postsecondary institutions while giving students a say over how the money will be used without compromising university autonomy. Brokering a deal may become a difficult hurdle to overcome.

The solution

In the budget tabled last month, the province clawed back more than $120-million in this year's university funding as part of the government's effort to reach a zero deficit next year. Universities said they can't meet the target by March 31, 2013, and will likely have to add to their deficits.

But the PQ is promising that the short-term pain will be met with long-term gain. Pierre Duchesne, the Minister of Higher Education, promised additional funding for universities – at least $1.7-billion more over the next seven years. And he has suggested that even more money could be made available in the medium and long term. This week's meeting will likely set the table for the solutions to come. Perhaps not for the more militant student groups – those calling for tuition-free universities and who now threaten to boycott the summit – but the PQ doesn't seem to mind. It wants to emerge from the debate as the party of reason that has solved the crisis created by the Liberals.

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