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KONRAD YAKABUSKI

Quebec's Maple Spring left a dubious legacy Add to ...

No recent moment in Quebec’s highly romanticized history has been glorified as much as the Maple Spring. The student strike over a proposed tuition-fee increase that began five years ago this month made stars of its charismatic leaders, melted the hearts of nostalgic baby boomers and revealed the idealism of a new cohort of Quebeckers once written off as an apathetic and gadget-addicted lost generation.

The “red square” that became the symbol of the student movement separated the righteous from the cynics – at least until opportunistic opposition politicians began pinning it to their lapels as the strike gained momentum. At its peak, nightly marches through downtown Montreal drew thousands of pot-clanging protesters and threatened the stability of then-premier Jean Charest’s government.

Rather than making Quebec a utopia of postsecondary education, however, the true legacy of the Maple Spring has been the political paralysis of the provincial government and the most underfunded universities in Canada. “No government will dare touch tuition fees now,” former student leader Léo Bureau-Blouin proudly told Radio-Canada this month, as if scaring politicians into submission was something to brag about. But fear of a reprise of 2012 has effectively shut down debate.

What triggered the student strike of 2012 was the Charest government’s proposal to raise tuition fees by 75 per cent over five years. Students were naturally miffed. They were being asked to pay the price for years of government pandering to previous cohorts of students that had turned the gap between tuition fees in Quebec and the rest of Canada into a chasm. It was a situation the country’s most indebted province could neither afford nor justify, given that the principal beneficiaries of cheap tuition remained the children of upper-income Quebeckers.

The Charest government promised to boost financial-aid programs to help students most affected by the fee increase. But that concession simply provoked student leaders who sought not only to quash the increase but to abolish tuition fees altogether. Then-Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois told them what they wanted to hear. Elected that September, the PQ cancelled the tuition hike and indexed fees to the annual increase in average disposable income – or less than 2 per cent – pending consultations on the feasibility of free tuition.

The consultations went nowhere, and the PQ was turfed from power barely 18 months after taking office. But the Liberals under Premier Philippe Couillard have not dared tread where Mr. Charest did, despite embracing a plan to eliminate the deficit that has left provincial funding for postsecondary education increasing at less than 1 per cent a year. The government is now promising a major reinvestment in postsecondary education in the upcoming budget, but not enough to fix what’s broken.

Provincial grants to Quebec universities will total about $2.8-billion this year – about $1-billion less than rectors say they would need to match funding levels in the rest of Canada. The gap shows up in steadily deteriorating infrastructure, fewer teaching positions being filled, bigger class sizes and an overall decline in the quality of education.

Full-time undergraduate tuition (regardless of faculty) stands at a weighted average of $2,851, compared to $6,373 nationally and $8,114 in Ontario. Tuition accounts for less than 15 per cent of university revenues in Quebec, compared to a third in Ontario, where the government recently reformed aid programs to make tuition free for students from low-income families.

If any province should go the Ontario route, it’s Quebec, where university graduates make up a lower percentage of the population than in the rest of Canada. Subsidizing tuition for middle- and upper-income Quebeckers makes no sense. Neither does charging the same rates across faculties, considering the higher costs of educating engineers and doctors and the greater earnings potential of those graduates. Yet this is where the Maple Spring has left Quebec.

Five years later, the student leaders who lit up the movement seem poised for promising political careers. Mr. Bureau-Blouin, who won a PQ seat in the 2012 election only to be defeated 18 months later, was awarded a Rhodes scholarship and is now studying law at Oxford University. He’ll soon be back. Martine Desjardins also ran for the PQ but lost. She appears destined to try again. The biggest star of the Maple Spring, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, just completed a “listening” tour of Quebec and is being courted to lead Québec Solidaire, the upstart party eating into PQ votes on the left.

In other words, pity the next Quebec premier to propose a tuition increase.

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