As student protests gain momentum, attracting widespread public support throughout Quebec, Premier Jean Charest is standing firm in his government's decision to proceed with steep tuition-fee hikes.
University tuition fees in Quebec, the lowest in the country, will increase starting in September by $325 a year for the next five years, a 75-per-cent jump by 2016-2017. So far, 78,000 university and college students have joined a province-wide general strike and their numbers continue to grow, driven in part by the support of almost half of Quebeckers, according to recent public opinion polls.
Several thousand student protesters marched in blistering cold towards the National Assembly on Thursday, heightening tensions in their showdown with the Charest government. Police riot squads quickly intervened, creating a human chain and using tear gas to disperse students who tried to break down a barricade near the National Assembly building.
As a police helicopter hovered above, students reiterated their determination to maintain a strong show of force demanding that fees be frozen.
"The Liberal government adopted a similar attitude in 2005 over changes to the student-aid program and retreated after students went on strike. … Over time we believe we can force the government to back down again," said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, head of a wide coalition of university and college student groups, as well as labour and community organizations.
Not this time, said Finance Minister Raymond Bachand, who argued the province's cashed-strapped universities need more funding than ever and students must help shoulder the load.
"Our will is as firm on this question as it is with balancing the budget,' Mr. Bachand said during a debate in the National Assembly this week. "You can't just freeze everything in Quebec. If you freeze fees for one group, that means another group will have to pay more. Freeze means under-financing."
Universities have presented a united front to make that same case through the Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec (CREPUQ). The organization is adamant that underfunding jeopardizes teaching and learning quality, research and competitiveness.
CREPUQ claims that despite above-average provincial grants, Quebec's institutions took in $2,557 less per student on average than those in other provinces in 2007-08, leaving them $620-million underfunded, and the province says its 18 schools have an accumulated deficit of $483-million.
The budget plan promises $850-million in new funding to the system by 2017, $430-million of it from government. But it also increases the share of revenue paid by students by nearly 5 per cent.
At the same time the universities cry poor and defend tuition hikes, CREPUQ chair Denis Brière has also tried to quell accessibility concerns, saying the province's promise to boost student aid by $118-million – largely using the new tuition revenues – will safeguard equality of opportunity.
The tuition hikes are becoming more than just a confrontation over student debt. It has evolved into an emotional debate over the values of Quebec society, one that blindsided the Charest government and threatens to become a hotly contested pre-election issue.
Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois accused the Liberals and the newly formed Coalition Avenir Quebec party of wanting to shape Quebec in the image of other provinces that support the Harper government's social conservative values.
"In my view this attitude is completely pathetic. Quebec is not and will never be a province like the others. Quebec is a nation and nations worthy of the name make their own choices," Ms. Marois said in the National Assembly.
Students are planning a major demonstration in Montreal in late March, around the time the Quebec government tables its upcoming budget, led by the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, a group representing 125,000 students. Their objective is to build enough political pressure to force a freeze, and to reframe the conversation about university funding.
"What needs to be reviewed are the universities' accountability processes," said FEUQ president Martine Desjardins. "Too much money was being wasted, rather than going into improving the quality of education."