Premier Pauline Marois had no sooner unveiled her plan to hold a summit next year calling for an "open" debate on the future of university funding than she all but excluded the possibility of abolishing tuition fees, one of the crucial demands made by the province's more militant student groups.
"It would be very difficult to do that. But we shouldn't stop youths who want to defend this point of view to express themselves," Ms. Marois said during a news conference in Montreal on Thursday.
The more outspoken student groups are in no mood to debate with a government closed to discussing their ideas. Some are even calling for limited strike action next week.
That could set the tone for another confrontation, even as the Parti Québécois government seeks to usher in a new era of dialogue after last spring's student clashes with police over the former Liberal regime's tuition-fee hikes.
"The time of confrontation is over," said former student leader and newly elected PQ MNA Léo Bureau-Blouin. "The time has come to change the perception youths have of the Quebec government."
The summit is to be held in mid-February, 2013, to address the issue of accessibility and funding of post-secondary institutions, part of a wider debate on the role universities play in Quebec society.
"What kind of universities do we want? What should be their mission? These are the kind of question we will ask ourselves," said Minister for Higher Education Pierre Duchesne, noting that 60 per cent of the province's half-million university and college students are women. "It is also for them that we are undertaking this exercise."
The crucial debate will pit universities who claim to be under-financed against students who argue the system has been mismanaged and wasteful.
Ms. Marois reiterated the government will propose indexing tuition fees to the cost of living as the preferred solution. But she added that other funding formulas will also be considered.
"Everything is on the table," she said. "And if everyone acts in good faith, we will be able to find a solution together."
In the weeks leading up to the summit, four public meetings in communities across the province will be held to examine such issues as universities' quality and accessibility, their contribution to society, and their governance and financing. A weekend gathering of 500 students will be held to define the university of tomorrow. And a website will be set up to gather the public's input.
But for Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault, who was education minister in the PQ government in the 1990s, the summit will be doomed to failure if Ms. Marois refuses to recognize that universities are under-funded.
"Unless they solve the issue of under-funding they will be going in circles. It will become the summit of illusions," Mr. Legault said.
During the election campaign, Ms. Marois had promised to hold the summit within the first hundred days of taking power. However, the government's priority quickly turned to tabling a budget on Nov. 20, when it will indicate the extent of the austerity measures it plans to implement.