The financial future of Quebec universities will be decided at a summit in February, preceded by three smaller forums that will lay the groundwork for a debate on tuition fees and funding of postsecondary institutions.
On Thursday, Premier Pauline Marois and Minister of Higher Education Pierre Duchesne will unveil the participation process leading up to the summit. Students, academics and university presidents will be called upon to define their demands.
The Parti Québécois is fulfilling a promise made in the past election campaign in response to last spring's student strike over tuition fee hikes. The increases imposed by the former Liberal government ballooned into social unrest across the province.
Within hours of taking office in September, Ms. Marois placed a freeze on tuition-fee hikes, putting a formal end to the student protest. The PQ promised to limit hikes to the cost of living but insisted that all options were on the table. More militant student groups have been demanding the elimination of tuition fees altogether as proposed in the 1960s when Quebec's modern postsecondary system was designed.
The PQ government has maintained that it wants an open dialogue, hoping to use the summit to achieve a consensus. It has come under attack, however, from opposition parties claiming that cash-strapped universities were now short an additional $32-million because of the freeze.
The heads of several universities have made it clear that the province's postsecondary institutions were underfunded and were urgently in need of a major cash injection if they wanted to compete with their peers in the rest of Canada and in the United States.
The Liberals contend that the summit is nothing more than a masquerade. The party argues that the government has already decided to extend the tuition freeze into the 2013-2014 academic year while offering no new source of funding to the universities. Liberals say the extended freeze would represent another $80-million shortfall for universities next year. They released a letter signed by Mr. Duchesne to a government education advisory body confirming a freeze on tuition fees in 2013-2014.
"Ms. Marois and Mr. Duchesne said things today that aren't truthful and which are in fact lies," said Liberal opposition leader Jean-Marc Fournier on Wednesday. "They keep saying that decisions will be taken at the summit when in fact decisions have already been made."
Mr. Duchesne denied the charges, explaining that the Liberals had misinterpreted the contents of the letter. "I can't say that we have already decided on a freeze or the amount of a tuition-fee increase before holding the summit. I can't say that I will consult people and then have already decided on an increase."
The PQ government will be tabling its first budget on Nov. 20. It is unlikely that it will venture a response to the universities' demand for more money until after the summit. Mr. Duchesne indicated he has studies showing that universities could do more with the funding they currently have, adding that part of the problem was related to poor management of public funds.