The tentative deal that promised a welcome end to the three-month-long confrontation over tuition-fee hikes in Quebec has run head-on into a wall of student resistance, sending the government scrambling to salvage a fast-deteriorating situation.
Students in a half dozen colleges and 10 university faculties and departments voted to reject the agreement on Monday after the Charest government boasted of having won the battle. Students at other schools are set to vote on the deal throughout the week, but the trend is clearly running against it.
The agreement, reached Saturday, called for allowing the $254-a-year tuition fee hike to be offset by an equivalent reduction in administrative surcharges through tighter controls on the way universities are managed. A special committee would be set up to examine university spending practices and identify savings that would go to eliminating the fee hike.
But on Sunday, Education Minister Line Beauchamp said the government had stuck to its principle of not abandoning tuition-fee hikes. In a TV interview, she said there was no guarantee that universities would be able to cut enough fat in their budgets to reduce the level of surcharges needed to compensate for the tuition increases, and she repeated the message in an e-mail to all Liberal members of the National Assembly.
Leaders of the student movement demanded that the agreement be clarified to include the government's verbal commitment, made at the bargaining table, that reductions in surcharges as well as all savings made by the universities would go to lowering tuition fees.
And they contend that the minister's comments inflamed an already heated debate over an agreement which, from the outset, failed to meet the students' demands for a freeze on the fee hikes.
"The comments made by the government have done nothing to appease the confrontation. That was not what we agreed to at the bargaining table," said Martine Desjardins, president of the Quebec federation of university students. "It has contributed to sabotaging the deal."
On Monday, in the wake of mounting protests and more student demonstrations in Montreal, Ms. Beauchamp began back-tracking, insisting the issue would eventually be resolved by the new committee.
"Will the savings erase the totality of tuition fees? No one can answer that question," Ms. Beauchamp told The Canadian Press. "It seems that students are under the impression that by voting in favour of the agreement they are abandoning their demands for a freeze on tuition or a tuition-free university system. That is not the case."
Ms. Desjardins and other student leaders expressed little optimism that the agreement would be approved in its current form. And a rejection of the deal would only prolong the social crisis, with no resolution in sight.