The Quebec government is increasing tuition fees by 3 per cent, a middle-of-the-road approach that risks satisfying neither universities nor student leaders.
The move, designed to put a lid on simmering tensions over university funding, ties increases to the cost of living.
Most participants at the province's long-anticipated summit on higher education stopped short of calling its first day a success, even as many expressed hope that the gathering had softened the rancour remaining after a year of angry protests and steep funding cuts that plunged Quebec's post-secondary system into crisis.
The plan from Premier Pauline Marois, who was at pains to play down obvious divisions at the summit, veers toward the middle ground to avoid inflaming any one constituency. Yet university leaders dismissed the tuition increases, worth a total of just $12-million this year, as "minuscule" compared with schools' underfunding, and it remains unclear whether the fee hikes are gentle enough to keep students from spilling back into the streets.
"It does not solve our problems, and it will upset the students," University of Montreal rector Guy Breton said. "Maybe that's the compromise we have to [accept] to start on a new basis."
Some 350 university administrators, student leaders, government officials and other stakeholders flocked to the summit, held in a high-security bubble behind multiple police barriers.
Tying tuition to the calculated annual rise in Quebeckers' disposable income is a controversial move that will lead to annual fee hikes and bring $288-million in revenue over six years. That is nowhere near the amount of money universities say they need, and drew strong condemnation from student leaders, who want fees to stay frozen next September.
The government also outlined a lengthy list of other proposals, including a plan to create a new council on universities to advise the higher education minister, a forum to reach a new policy for research funding, and a promise of a new funding formula. But the details of nearly every proposal will be decided at future gatherings, most of which will take months to produce results. A preliminary report on the new funding method will be tabled by December, but the solution will not take effect until 2015.
"Why is it that for every other issue, it will be resolved later in 2014 or 2015, but when it comes to tuition fees, the government is imposing the hike this year," said Martine Desjardins, president of the student group Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ). "There won't be a consensus on this issue. … we are quite disappointed."
Although Ms. Desjardins voiced her opposition loudly, she did not signal plans to boycott the meeting's second day.
"Is the government making a choice for the future or is it strictly an electoral calculation," said Tierry Morel-Laforce, vice-president of the Quebec federation of university students.
Universities are funded on a per student basis, but other formulas, including setting higher tuition fees for more costly programs such as medicine or charging more for foreign students, are now in play.
"We certainly don't have a consensus on this proposal," Ms. Marois said. "There are financial deficits and personnel deficits … and we will need to find ways to resolve these issues."
The government recommitted to providing $800-million in extra funding by 2019 to replace revenue lost when it cancelled tuition increases the Liberals had planned, but not until after universities endure $250-million in budget cuts the government demanded by the spring of 2014.
Still, many participants appear hopeful the summit has at least set the stage for a more productive debate.
"I don't see a lot of changing of minds, but I do see an airing of different perspectives in a respectful way," said Alan Shepard, president of Concordia University. "I think it's superior to rioting or that kind of activity."