Summit to Fully Evaluate Higher Education in Quebec

All issues facing Quebec’s higher education system will be on the table for the eagerly anticipated Summit on Higher Education organized by the new government headed by Parti Québécois. It’s been a year since Canadian college students took to the streets in protest of newly announced tuition hikes, but the tenor of the summit will be far removed from anger and acrimony of those mass gatherings. Premier Pauline Marois, speaking at a press conference announcing the summit in Old Montreal, said that the gathering will be all about open dialogue and compromise.

Unfortunately for those who hoped that the summit might prove to be something of a referendum on the tuition hikes, Marois made clear that tuition will comprise a small part of the ambitious agenda. All aspects of higher education will be discussed, and that includes the reassessment of the overall goals driving the province’s colleges and universities.

Flanked by Higher Education Minister Pierre Duchesne and former student leader Léo Bureau-Blouin, who is now the MNA for Laval des Rapides, Marois said she was confident that the summit will bring all partners in education together in good faith.

She acknowledged that some will push for tuition increases, others for indexation and others for free tuition, but this process will give everyone a chance to express their opinion and work on solutions after what she called the Liberals poor handling of the student crisis last spring.

Although the summit is not due to formally begin until mid-February of next year, some preliminary discussions will take place immediately. To be held over two days in late November, four meetings will cover issues such as the quality of higher education, university financing, management hurdles in the higher education system, and the overall contribution of the university sector to the overall well-being of the province.

The four sessions will also consider views voiced by the populace which can be electronically submitted through the summit’s website and Facebook page.

“No way of thinking or position will be predetermined,” said Duchesne, although the Liberals charged this week that a letter sent by the PQ indicated it would maintain a tuition freeze until 2014.

In Quebec City, Gerry Sklavounos, higher education critic for the Quebec Liberals, called the summit “a sham,” questioning the roles of Duchesne and Bureau-Blouin, saying they both took the side of the students.
“These co-chairs are not credible,” he said. “It’s a serious problem.”

Lending some credence to Sklavounos’ claims are rumors that Marois will use the summit to announce her plan to index university tuition to the cost of living — something that, in Sklavounos’ view, won’t fully cover the operational costs of Quebec universities.

Marois has also announced that while the possibility of free tuition isn’t completely dead, actually making it a reality could prove “very difficult.” Making university free to attend was the goal of some of the more militant student groups taking part in the protests a year ago.