Tuition fee increase officially repealed

MONTREAL (CUP) – The Parti Québécois’ cabinet meeting last week was the first time Pauline Marois executed her actions as premier of the province, spelling out the end of solidarity within the student movement and heralding a new structure of government-student relations.

Marois announced the abolition of both the tuition hike as well as the controversial Law 12, save a few provisions largely in connection to the scheduling of the disrupted winter semester.

She also announced her cabinet, making public a new ministry – the Ministry of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology – which will be led by Pierre Duchesne.

Marois’ announcements mark the fulfillment, at least verbally, of some of her campaign promises made by herself and other PQ candidates leading up to the Sept. 4 election.

Division at the base

Despite claiming the seven-month long student strike victory, the abolition of the hike signals the parting of ways for the student associations Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec and Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, and the Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante, which had collaborated, despite a historically tense relationship.

All three representative bodies publicly claimed a tuition freeze as the goal fueling the strike, however, for CLASSE, the goal represented a compromise on their members’ part – a compromise they are no longer willing to make.

“We had adopted a negotiating stance during the strike for a freeze on the 2007 basis – it was seen as a compromise to mobilize more easily and to perhaps win more easily,” explained Jérémie Bédard-Wien, an executive of CLASSE, addressing students at McGill before Marois abolished tuition.

He said that the end of the strike permits CLASSE to focus on some of its own major political projects like their campaign for free education, one of the core objectives for CLASSE and its larger supporting organization, Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante.

Bédard-Wien said that for the Sept. 22 demonstration – a routine of protest held on the 22nd day of each month – the theme was to support free education. For the student federations, however, FEUQ President Martine Desjardins said that the association would not be participating in the Sept. 22 demonstration as FEUQ supports the objective of a tuition freeze, not free education.

“There’s no tuition fee hike, there’s no Law 12 and, so we think, now we have a minister who’s more open to discussion – we need to take this path,” she continued. “We won yesterday.”

Though CLASSE has also publicly deemed the student strike a victory, Bédard-Wien explained that the choice was made in order to emphasize the seven months of mobilization on the part of students.

“We want to make clear that now if the PQ cancels the tuition fee hike and cancels Law 12 it’s because we have risen and we have put intense political pressure on these political parties and they are afraid of us,” he said.

According to him, CLASSE takes a different approach to relations with the newly-elected PQ government than the student federations’ collaborative approach.

“The PQ has a long history of making promises that they don’t keep and are certainly no friends of any progressive social struggle,” he explained. He said that CLASSE is on alert for the tuition hike to return in the coming weeks and months.

A ministry devoted to higher education
First-time MNA Duchesne, a former Radio-Canada journalist and journalism professor at Université Laval, will be the first minister for the newly created Ministry of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology.

Staff within the Ministry of Education, Leisure and Sport said they have yet to receive directives from the PQ as to how responsibilities will be divided between it and the new ministry.

The veteran PQ MNA Marie Malavoy will be the new Minister of Education, Leisure and Sport, a position formerly held by Liberal MNA Line Beauchamp, who resigned in the midst of the student strike before Michelle Courchesne was appointed to take her place.

According to Desjardins, Malavoy will not be involved in settling outstanding issues related to the student strike or the organization of the upcoming summit on higher education, which the premier has committed to organizing. Desjardins said the summit is likely to occur in February or March 2013.

Impact on students

Though now abolished, the tuition increase was already billed to students attending Quebec universities.

Circumstances vary depending on the institution: at the Université de Montréal tuition billing was delayed so no students will need reimbursement. At the Université du Québec à Montréal, the period to pay tuition ranges from mid-July to Nov. 2 so the number of students affected is undetermined, whereas, at McGill University, the deadline for fall 2012 tuition payments was set for the end of August. At Concordia, students were instructed to pay tuition including the hike weeks ago.

Spokespeople from Concordia, McGill and UQÀM confirmed that the universities have yet to receive any official direction from the government as to how and when reimbursements to students are to be provided.


Fight against tuition hike ‘far from over’

Photo courtesy of FEUQ President Martine Desjardins.

MONTREAL (CUP) — Despite a Parti Québécois victory in last week’s provincial election, student leaders say the movement is far from over.

“This is not a complete victory,” said Éliane Laberge, president of the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec. “It’s going to be a complete victory when the Parti Québécois is going to cancel the tuition fee increases.”

Also, speaking at the election result party hosted by two of the largest student federations, Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec President Martine Desjardins expressed doubt that the election would put an end to student demonstrations.

“It’s only a baby step,” she said. “This is not the end of the mobilization. Our goal is not obtained yet; we need a resolution and a real outcome.”

Jérémie Bédard-Wien, an executive of Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale, said that for students the main course of action in the coming days would be to “keep the pressure on the government” to ensure the PQ follows through on its promises concerning education.

“The Liberal hike has been cancelled however the PQ’s vision is very similar to the Liberals and we expect them to propose an indexation of the fees on the cost of living. This is not something that we consider acceptable,” said Bédard-Wien on the PQ’s proposed education policies.

The day after the election, Premier-designate Pauline Marois stated in a press conference her intention to order by decree the abolition of the Charest government’s tuition hike, to abolish the controversial Law 12 and convene a summit meeting to discuss higher education. The same day Marois reportedly called Desjardins personally to state the importance of settling the student conflict.

Whether the PQ will be able to implement its promises remains to be seen according to Concordia political science professor Harold Chorney who specializes in public finance and policy.

The economic viability of abolishing the tuition hike is realistic to Chorney, but he noted that the details of the “financing formula” could cause problems — particularly if the province’s budget, passed by the National Assembly every March, runs a deficit as a result.

“Governments have to present and get approved in the assembly a budget and if you stand outside of the budget you are in political trouble,” said Chorney.

Marois promised to abolish the tuition hike through an order in council, a process that, theoretically, could be issued by the minister of education unilaterally.

“It’s an interesting gambit that Pauline Marois is going to try to play and something I actually agree with — I think there ought to be what she suggests, a tuition fee hike freeze until they figure out a better way of financing higher education. That’s a good idea — but that doesn’t mean that’s going to be politically winnable.”

Marois’ final promise in her first address as premier-designate was a promise to convene a summit on higher education — a step that university rectors and staff have wanted to take for years, according to Concordia University political science professor Guy Lachapelle.

“We never had the debate about the place of education in our society and I think that’s very important,” he said. “I think it will be very interesting to watch – to see who’s nominated to be the chair, to sit on the commission,” Lachapelle added. The details of the summit have yet to be made public.

The upcoming summit will be the next major focus for CLASSE as it will be a key opportunity to communicate the associations’ plan for education, said CLASSE executive Bédard-Wien.

“We’ve always fought for a radically different vision of education — education free from tuition and from the corporatization — and so we’ll keep fighting against that and so, of course, the summit is a crucial point in that strategy,” he said.

According to Bédard-Wien, the real victory for the student movement is the central role issues and debates around education assumed throughout the general student strike.

“The strength that we built through leverage in numbers allowed us to put these debates on the political map and the fear that such momentous times in Quebec society will replicate itself is the main reason why the PQ is actually following up on these promises now,” he said.


Léo Bureau-Blouin on his choice to enter Quebec politics

MONTREAL (CUP) – At 20-years-and-seven-months-old, Léo Bureau-Blouin is the youngest candidate running in this campaign to become a member of Quebec’s National Assembly.

Bureau-Blouin became a well-known face in Quebec over the course of his term as president of one of the province’s largest student organizations, the Fédération étudianté collégiale du Québec. After completing two presidential terms on June 1, he joined the ranks of sovereigntist provincial party, the Parti Québécois.

The FECQ is one of four student unions officially representing students throughout the now seven-month long general strike against the Liberal government’s scheduled increase of tuition fees. During his two-year run as president, Bureau-Blouin represented the interests of CÉGEP students in negotiations with government officials.

Bureau-Blouin says he was approached by the PQ in late June and decided to take the party up on their proposition to assist and support him in running as a PQ candidate in the riding Laval-des-Rapides, just north off the Island of Montreal.

He was reached by phone mere days before the election. The interview was conducted primarily in French.

CUP: There’s a stereotype that executives from the student federations often use their roles as student representatives as a launch pad for their political careers. How do you respond to this considering that you are a former FECQ executive who has now joined a major political party?

Bureau-Blouin: First of all, if all I had wanted from the start were to create a place in politics for myself, I would have achieved something completely different because it’s a lot of work and a lot of energy. That is to say it is extremely difficult [for others] to interpret someone’s intent for creating a career — [it could be] because they are passionate. We need to encourage youth to be involved in politics. People who talk of these stereotypes present it as if politics are a bad thing but in many ways [political processes] are very positive.

Concerning the number of youth in politics, 10 per cent of the electorate is youth but zero per cent are present in the National Assembly. So it’s time to take part and, as for me, I wish that more young people would run in the next elections because if we want to youth to get involved in politics, it takes young candidates.

CUP: So you have not attended university — do you feel you would make a statement of sorts if you were to become a member of the National Assembly without a university degree?

BB: Regardless, I wish to finish my studies — it’s absolutely necessary to obtain my degree however already in the National Assembly there are several elected members who do not have degrees. It’s not a novelty because in this society, it’s only 20 per cent of the population who obtained university degrees — so it’s normal in governments to have representatives without degrees. But, me, I see myself getting a degree in the long-term, just not right away.

CUP: As the former president of FECQ, you were a representative for CÉGEP students. Do you feel students support you now as an electoral candidate?

BB: Yes, but students, like society, are not one unit — there are people who feel differently, there are all kinds of people who are students — but, I think, yes. I think that the majority of students are happy with what I’m doing. The objective is to demonstrate that we can continue to build in different ways.

CUP: The PQ stance on tuition in the media has been to increase fees on par with inflation — do you think students will be content with this?

BB: What we said was that we will abolish the increase of tuition fees, we will abolish the Charest government’s special law [Law 12], and we spoke of holding financial and business consultations with universities. One of the propositions that were put on the table was to have tuition fees increase at the same rate as the cost of living.

For me, I defend the students’ cause, that is to say that tuition fees should not increase. But I am pragmatic and the objective is to engage with aim to finding a consensus in this discussion and I think what the students really want is not to have a drastic [tuition] increase like what we saw with the Liberals.

CUP: You and PQ leader Pauline Marois called for students to halt any strike actions because, according to your statements at the time, the student conflict plays into the Liberal Party’s strategy. Why did you feel this way and, considering the actions that occurred earlier this week at the Université de Montréal, do you feel the same now?

BB: First of all, the call we made was to end the strike for the duration of the election campaign because the Charest government profited from the student conflict to mask its track record for the last nine years. And the call worked as CÉGEP students decided to go back to class together with universities, with the exception of two faculties at the Université du Québec à Montréal and several modules at U de M — so we’re talking less than 2,000 students.

So why did we do it? Because the Charest government’s strategy is so simple: talk about the student conflict and avoid talking about corruption and collusion, avoid bad reports and shale gas, and the least successful events during their governance. And I think it’s important to not let those issues drop.

CUP: And finally concerning statements by Marois that some characterize as racist and xenophobic —notably the institution of French test for candidates running for public office — what is your view on these statements?

BB: There is already a test for immigrants to Quebec so there’s nothing revolutionary there. It’s already there; it’s just not a standardized test. We are just asking people to have command of French because for Canadian immigrants, you must have a good knowledge of French or English. In Great Britain, you cannot work in the country if you do not have a good knowledge of English — that’s how it works in most countries all over the world. How can you integrate someone into society if you cannot communicate with that person?

CUP: Do you see an irony between the two positions you are seen to represent; being against tuition hikes but for a French test that targets certain communities?

BB: I think it’s two separate things; tuition fee hikes because we think education should be affordable for everyone but, on the other side — [and] it’s two separate things — we think that we need to have a common language to be able to talk together. In Ontario and the rest of Canada, people speak English and understand themselves in one language. If the government can’t say something to the people, we have a big problem.

Right now, there’s a problem that is that more and more people don’t speak French at home in Quebec and for us it’s a huge concern.

For the moment there is already a French test to become a citizen of Quebec, but there is no real verification, there’s no real standardized test. What we want is to make sure people have a real understanding of French when they arrive here in Quebec.

I think it’s a matter of giving the immigrants all the chances they need to be integrated into the society and to emancipate themselves, because I think many people are arriving here in Quebec and they are really frustrated because they have difficulty integrating themselves. But maybe if we were giving people more tools to learn French and if we were saying to them at first, you need to speak French to come here, I think it would be easier for them to become part of the society.


Negotiations at an impasse: Education Minister

Negotiations between student leaders and the provincial government have come to a halt as the talks concerning the tuition crisis broke down in Quebec City on Thursday.

According to a statement from Education Minister Michelle Courchesne, the negotiations have reached an “impasse” and there is no going forward.

The government offered a new deal to student leaders during negotiations which would reduce the tuition increase to $219 a year over seven years for a total increase of $1,533. They also offered a second option of a small increase in the first year, followed by $254 a year over the next six years, which amounts to almost the same $1,625 total increase which was originally offered.

The representatives of the four major student organizations present at the meeting rejected both of the provincial government’s offers.

“For the student leaders it was a moratorium or nothing,” Courchesne said at a press conference held Thursday.

Martine Desjardins, president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, expressed her disappointment with the failed negotiations publicly.

“Students have continued to make offers,” said Desjardins. “The government had already moved on to other things.”

At the press conference, Premier Jean Charest stood by Minister Courchesne’s decision, reiterating the provincial government’s previous offers to student leaders.

The Premier went on to say that the government would not bend to forms of intimidation or “threats” referring to the recent concerns that protesters would disturb Montreal’s Grand Prix next week as a pressure tactic. Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, spokesperson for the Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante, said that any comments made in relation to his organization were made in jest.

The latest attempts to solve the ongoing tuition crisis and civil unrest in the province have resulted in a dead end, but Charest emphasized that the discussion could be reopened in the future.

“We have made very important efforts but we’ve reached an impasse,” he said, “but the door is always open.”

Concordia Student Union News

CSU votes to reject offer from provincial government

UPDATE (11/05/2012):

As of Friday May 11, members from three of the province’s major student groups have voted to reject the Quebec government’s offer of proposed changes to their plan to increase university tuition fees in September.

Student unions represented by the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec and delegates of the Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante voted overwhelmingly against accepting the latest deal aimed at ending student protests.

Their decision comes almost a week after the tentative agreement between students and the government was initially reached. Spokespeople from all three student groups helped form the now-rejected deal after 22 hours of negotiations with Premier Jean Charest and Education Minister Line Beauchamp on Saturday.

– – – – –

The Concordia Student Union unanimously voted to decline the provincial government’s second offer to striking student groups in a special council meeting on Tuesday night.

The special council meeting was held to discuss the recent offer made by the Charest Liberals to student leaders as well as members of the Conference des recteurs et des principaux des universites du Quebec. These negotiations led to the announcement of a tentative deal on Saturday. The offer was presented by leaders of the student movement during a press conference but will only be decided upon once general assemblies are held and the offer is put to a vote.

Approximately 50 Concordia students gathered for the assembly but only the elected council members were allowed to vote. Students were encouraged by CSU President Lex Gill to participate in the discussion portion of the meeting and voice their opinions.

Calling the media “intimidating,” Gill requested that all external media leave the meeting early on. All Concordia student media were welcome to stay for the duration, however, Gill invited mainstream media organizations to get in touch with her following the meeting.

“I’m going to try and not editorialize as much as possible,” Gill told students.

An appearance by Board of Governors Chair Peter Kruyt was met with disdain from some students and he left shortly after questions were raised about his presence.

The results were unsurprising as many university student associations and CEGEPs have voted to reject the government’s proposal during the week.

“I’m really glad we took the position that we took,” CSU councillor and student governor Cameron Monagle told The Concordian. “It was a really bum deal.”

The overwhelming rejection is meant to be a symbolic motion that the tuition increase, despite the deal, will not be accepted.

“This offer didn’t block the tuition increase and it was insufficient,” Monagle added.

The Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, the student organization which represents Concordia and many other Quebec universities, will hold its own vote on Friday, May 11.

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