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Quebec Treasury Board president Stephane Bedard defends his spending estimates during question period on Dec. 6, 2012 at the legislature in Quebec City.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Quebec's universities say they have been blindsided by a directive from the provincial government demanding they slash $124-million in spending by April. The government says universities should have known of the cuts from the previous Liberal government; the universities say they never got the memo.

The province's higher education minister, Pierre Duchesne, summoned a meeting of Quebec university heads on Tuesday and issued a warning that they would need to tighten their belts to fit within the government's spending estimates. The university rectors reacted with disbelief, calling it a retroactive cut.

This latest standoff over revenues adds tension to the higher education summit planned for February.

Universities have already spent months trying to cover holes in their budgets after the newly elected Parti Québecois government annulled new tuition-fee hikes promised by Jean Charest's Liberals, and now worry they have no choice but to run up deficits, and perhaps cut student services.

"We have two-thirds of the budget already spent, and for the next four months everything is accounted for," said Denis Brière, rector of Université Laval, who said the move leaves his school short $21-million in government funds. "It's totally impossible and unrealistic."

The government says it is only asking universities to stay within spending estimates set out by the Liberals. Had they done so, they would not be $124-million in the red. "It's not as if they didn't know how much money they were getting," Treasury Board president Stéphane Bédard said in an interview.

As proof, a spokesman for Mr. Duchesne cited an internal letter penned by the previous government and dating from June in which the Treasury Board called on the Ministry of Education to cut $265-million in spending at all levels of education. The universities' leaders and budget officers are adamant they never saw the missive.

"It never filtered to the universities. I guess they forgot about it. They didn't put that into effect," Mr. Brière said. "Never, never, never were we asked to have a budget reflecting what the minister is saying right now."

In a statement, the Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec (CREPUQ) said university leaders will participate in February's summit, but that it "is very concerned" about how the cuts may impact the university's core functions – a worry shared by student groups.

"This will have an impact on students, for sure," said Martine Desjardins, president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec. "[They will have to cut] services, teaching also…We'll have bigger classes, less possibility for bursaries for students."

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