Quebec Premier Pauline Marois is hardly off to an auspicious start with her summit on postsecondary education that fulfills an election campaign promise to deal with the nasty dispute over university tuition fees.
ASSÉ, the student group at the centre of last year's protest, is boycotting the meeting that begins Monday. It threw up its hands in frustration after Ms. Marois refused to consider its demand to abolish tuition fees.
Instead, the group is planning a demonstration Tuesday after the meeting ends. Busloads of students are expected from Quebec City and other parts of the province. ASSÉ says it represents about 70,000 students.
It doesn't help the government's case that one of its own, former PQ premier Jacques Parizeau, has weighed into the conflict to support the abolition of tuition fees.
However, a repeat of the lengthy strike by students last year is unlikely as there is split among students over the issue. The more moderate student groups, who will be at the table, want tuition frozen.
Ms. Marois is offering yet another option – she wants to index tuition fees to the cost of living, which some groups interpret as a hike.
Quebec students pay about $2,200 a year in tuition – the lowest in the country. The Liberal government's decision to hike tuition provoked the huge protests. It eventually helped lead to the government's defeat last fall and the rise to power again of the separatist Parti Québécois. One of the PQ's first acts was to undo the hikes – and achieve temporary peace.
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the 22-year-old former leader of the ASSÉ movement, is skeptical about the outcome of the summit. "The main objective for this government is to be able to reach a consensus on the issue of tuition fees. … I don't know if it will be possible. I think it will be very difficult for the Marois government to find consensus on that issue."
Ms. Marois and Higher Education Minister Pierre Duchesne have invited about 30 other organizations, including business groups, first nations, university administrators, the opposition and women's groups, to the summit. That means the two biggest student groups – the Quebec Federation of University Students that says it represents about 125,000 students, and its CJEP counterpart, representing about 80,000 members – will have a lot of competition to get their points across.
Student leaders need to show their protests actually meant something and will translate into action by the government.
The PQ, meanwhile, was highly critical of the previous Liberal government for not being able to maintain social peace with the students. They need to show they can.
"They want to give the image of the government that is uniting Quebec, that is uniting the population," said Mr. Nadeau-Dubois. "They talk about entering an era of dialogue. If the summit turns bad, it's going to be a big defeat for them in the public opinion."
The government wants to index tuition fees to the cost of living. It will present three scenarios, according to Mr. Nadeau-Dubois, who is back to being just a regular student, but will be watching the summit closely. He said the indexation could result in hikes of between $40 and $80 a year.
Martine Desjardins, president of the university students' federation, will present four demands – the first is to freeze tuition and the others deal with financial aid to students and university financing issues. "It will be a lot of debate and I'm not sure that we will have consensus on the tuition fee, but we can have consensus on the other things that we are asking for," she said. However, her group does not support the government's indexation idea.
While Ms. Desjardins worries about how much will be achieved given the number of participants and compressed time frame, Mr. Nadeau-Dubois believes the Marois government will try to win over the more moderate students. "I think they will probably put more money in bursaries and loans," he predicted. "They will also try to put more measures to control the expenses of university."
He's not sure this will be enough, though.
Student groups are not united on this issue. Ms. Desjardins, who represents the largest group of university students, says the ASSÉ boycott sends a "bizarre message." Even some ASSÉ members are angry that their leadership is not at the table, she said. "We need to be there, we need to debate, we need to advocate in favour of the rights of the students we represent," she said. "Otherwise, we are letting again the government and university administration decide what will be done for students, which is nonsense."
Mr. Nadeau-Dubois, meanwhile, said the Marois government is "playing with fire" by ignoring the ASSÉ. "If they are not able to satisfy the demands of the students, I think on an electoral point of view it will cost them a lot of votes," he said.