Representatives from student and union groups participating at a Quebec government meeting of education stakeholders last month walked out when plans for tuition fee hikes beginning in 2012 were unveiled.
“It became clear the meeting was meant to legitimize a government decision already made,” said the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, one of the groups that left the Dec. 6 meeting early on, and the province’s largest student organization.
The walkouts were one of a number of reactions to the meeting in addition to boycotts by other invited groups and disruption by student protestors.
At a press conference following the meeting, Quebec’s Finance Minister Raymond Bachand confirmed the government’s position, advanced in the province’s March 30 budget, and said it intends to heed the advice of university officials to move quickly to decide by how much tuition fees will rise.
Last year the Conference of Rectors and Principals of Quebec Universities said it was not economically viable to maintain the status quo on tuition fees and called for an increase of $500 a year for three years.
But many in Quebec aren’t buying it. An umbrella group representing students’ and teachers’ unions in the province penned a manifesto on the future of universities in Quebec calling for public reinvestment, coupled with maintaining the tuition freeze.
“Education is a right, not a privilege for the wealthy of society,” Carole Neill, the group’s spokesperson, told reporters after releasing the manifesto Nov. 25.
The manifesto is one of several documents to come out in the run up to the “education partners” meeting, called as a result of the March budget revelation that the government would seek consensus for a proposal to increase tuition fees up to the Canadian average.
But one university didn’t wait to cluster around a consensus. McGill University announced plans in April to raise tuition fees for its MBA students from just under $2,000 a year to $29,500, claiming chronic government underfunding and the need to compete with other business programs internationally.
Michelle Courchesne, Quebec’s education minister at the time, fired back, threatening to reduce McGill’s funding by an amount equal to the tuition increase, and arguing that other Quebec universities, including Concordia, Laval, and Montreal, offered MBA programs with the flat-tuition model.
In an open letter, several prominent Quebec business leaders denounced the minister for trying to penalize McGill and the Montreal Gazette called for the minister’s removal. In August, Line Beauchamp took over the education portfolio in a cabinet shuffle.
Since then, McGill has gone ahead with the tuition hike in 2010 while the new education minister has remained silent. McGill has said it plans another $3,000 increase for the next cohort.
“It is incredulous that the government has effectively bowed to university and corporate pressure to allow McGill to privatize this academic program, and then allow it to be offered in public facilities that were paid for by Quebec taxpayers,” said CAUT executive director James Turk. “This example shows that the Quebec government is already sacrificing accessibility before any tuition decision comes into effect.”
Turk also pointed out that governments do not routinely grant university administrators’ requests for tuition hikes. Both the Alberta and Manitoba governments rejected proposals to increase tuition fees for professional schools this year.