The Parti Québécois obsession with reaching a zero deficit next year is thwarting any chances of abolishing university tuition fees, says former PQ premier Jacques Parizeau.
In a scathing attack against the PQ government, Mr. Parizeau said tuition-free universities remained a realistic objective if the PQ had the political will to achieve it.
"The zero deficit has spoiled everything. As soon as you set a deadline for reaching a zero [deficit] objective and that it becomes a religion, you stop thinking. You cut back on everything and you stop asking questions," Mr. Parizeau said in an interview with the Montreal daily Le Devoir.
The harsh assessment, coming from a prominent and influential former party leader, embarrassed the Marois government, which is facing strong criticism over the summit in two weeks on the future of universities.
Abolishing university tuition fees has been a long-term goal ever since Quebec's modern postsecondary education system was created in the 1960s.
However, the PQ government has refused to consider the option in the short term, saying that it would undermine efforts at reaching a zero deficit.
Mr. Parizeau's comments have given credibility to the more militant student groups that continue to demand the elimination of tuition fees as they did during last spring's provincewide student strike.
"For today's youth to want to discuss this [tuition-free university], well there was a whole generation before them that thought the same thing. They aren't outside the norm, they aren't out of order. It's ridiculous to send them packing," Mr. Parizeau said.
The former premier said there was no reason for the former Liberal government to abolish the tax on capital for banks that did nothing to create jobs.
He said if the tax was reinstated on banks, it would go a long way to help cover the cost of abolishing tuition fees.
Minister of Higher Education Pierre Duchesne, who as a journalist wrote an extensive biography of Mr. Parizeau, accepted with humility his mentor's criticism.
Mr. Duchesne said he remained open to a debate on tuition-free universities at the summit but insisted it wasn't part of his government's agenda.
"We have to keep open all possible avenues. But who knows where Quebec will be in 10 years or in 15 years. A lot of things can happen," Mr. Duchesne said.
The more moderate student groups that are demanding a freeze on tuition fees rather than outright elimination have rejected the government's proposal for indexation.
Indexation, according to Ms. Marois, is equal to a freeze, a position she will defend at the summit.
At the other end of the spectrum, university rectors and principals insisted it would be impossible to implement the $250-million cutback over two years the government is demanding from them.
The PQ was ready to accept some creative accounting by allowing universities to place the cutbacks in the deficit column while giving the institutions five years to pay the money back.
The opposition accused Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau of distorting the facts and improvising on the backs of the cash-strapped universities.
"As Minister of Finance you are forcing universities to have real deficits so that you can offer yourself a false zero deficit," said Liberal finance critic Raymond Bachand in the National Assembly.
According to Mr. Parizeau, the government has been debating the issue the wrong way. It should be first about defining what is expected of universities rather than how they should be funded, he said.
"You need to first set the objectives and then look for money, not the other way around."