Martine Desjardins describes herself as an eternal optimist. But the head of Quebec’s biggest student union says that, as the battle lines harden over a planned hike in postsecondary tuition fees in the province, she is steeling herself for a long and potentially bitter fight against the Quebec government.
“I hope they will see the light,” said Ms. Desjardins, a doctoral student in education at Université du Québec à Montréal and president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, or FEUQ, which regroups 15 student associations representing more than 125,000 university students. “But I’m losing hope because the government seems to have decided to play hardball.”
The Quebec government does indeed appear to be digging in its heels as student protests and strike votes pick up steam across the province. As of Feb. 21, approximately 36,000 students – or roughly 10 percent of the postsecondary student body in the province – had deserted their classrooms in what their representatives said would be an unlimited strike over government plans to nearly double tuition fees in the province over the next five years to $3,800 from the current $2,200. The number of striking students is expected to rise considerably in the coming days and weeks with strike votes planned on campuses across Quebec.
Average undergraduate tuition in Canada for 2011-12 is $5,366, but ranges widely from province to province. Quebec has the lowest fees, followed closely by Newfoundland and Labrador. Ontario has the highest average tuition, at $6,640 a year.
Education minister Line Beauchamp has been the primary target of the students’ ire since an anti-tuition-hike demonstration drew an estimated 30,000 people into the streets of downtown Montreal in November. Coming to the aide of his beleaguered minister, Quebec Premier Jean Charest defended the tuition hike as fair and even-handed. “We expect everyone to pull their [weight] and do their share,” he told reporters. “The government itself, through taxpayers, is going to do the lion’s share of extra funding. What’s behind all of this is quality education in our universities in Quebec.”
Ellen Aitken couldn’t agree more. As dean of the faculty of religious studies at McGill University, Dr. Aitken says that, despite boasting rock-bottom tuition fees, Quebec continues to lose ground in terms of postsecondary education. (A recent Statistics Canada study, for example, found that in Ontario, with its high fees, , 29 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds attended university compared to only 20 percent in low-fee Quebec.) “The level of provincial support for education in Quebec has dropped considerably over the years,” said Dr. Aitken.
To stop the slide in the national and international standing and reputation of Quebec’s universities, which makes it more difficult to recruit top teaching and research talent, Dr. Aitken said she favours “some increase in tuition – with the understanding that it is part of a formula to increase government spending on education. Not raising tuition is a short-sighted policy and students will eventually suffer from it.”
That was much the same reasoning the government used last spring when it announced that, beginning in the fall of 2012 and for each of the next four years, annual tuition fees in the province will be raised by $325. As a result, tuition fees in Quebec will reach $3,793 a year by 2017 – still more than 30 percent lower than the 2010 Canadian average.
“The tuition fees payable by Québec students [have been] frozen for 33 of the last 43 years,” Ms. Beauchamp said then. “They will be raised gradually to the level they would have been at today had they been indexed at the rate of inflation since 1968.” The government plans to bring in the tuition increases in the next provincial budget, which is expected to be tabled in the National Assembly in late March.
By then, however, Ms. Desjardins hopes that student actions, which will include strikes and once-a-week public protests by FEUQ’s member associations, will have forced the government to abandon its plans. “Any increase will harm the most vulnerable students and hinder their access to higher education,” she said. “We want tuition fees frozen and we won’t back down on that point.”
Senior administrators at several Quebec universities declined to comment.