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Tuition Fees: When the PQ's Problems Seemed So Far Away

03/11/2013 04:49 EDT | Updated 05/11/2013 05:12 EDT

Yesterday...

All my troubles seemed so far away...

Those might be the words going round the head of Premier Pauline Marois and her minister for higher Education, Pierre Duchesne, looking back at last summer, before their Parti Québécois won last September's provincial election in Québec. At that specific point in time, criticisms and blames against their principal political opponent became insufficient strategies regarding the debate on higher education funding. The past months have seen the situation gain in complexity and challenges. Marois and Duchesne have since then been facing serious questions.

First, how would they attenuate the tensions that they themselves triggered last Spring? How would they reach an agreement with the student unions leaders, knowing that freezing the tuition fees -- and even less abolish them -- is not compatible with the government's budget constraint.

Second, without asking anyone else to contribute more to its financing, how would they meet the needs of a postsecondary education system whose challenges have been exponentially growing over the past years?

Third, whatever action they would undertake, how could they do so getting on board the actors coming from the divided university community (directions, student unions, teachers) and from the various groups of interest, all of whose voice have been resonating in the public sphere for months, if not years, on that specific topic.

Yesterday, all their troubles seemed indeed so far away.

But now, it looks as though there here to stay

Moving across the aisle from one side to the other in the National Assembly has indubitably helped the troubles get from far away to closer than ever for the PQ.

Pauline Marois and her minister could have chosen to face them right away. They instead opted for the organization of a summit, held on February 25th and 26th, therefore postponing any decision, perhaps wishing for time to miraculously brush contentious issues away.

It was questionnable -- not to say unlikely -- from the start that the benefits from this strategy would outweigh the costs of postponing a long-awaited decision regarding the funding of higher education. Avoiding to make tough but necessary decisions jeopardizes the positioning of Quebec's universities in North America, the quality of the education received by Québec university students, and the durability of research undertaken by the scientific community in our universities.

Now that the summit is over, one can legitimately asks what new argument was brought by the government to the table?

No new evidence was presented.

No new study was undertaken since their election in September.

No question that had not been discussed in a similar forum, held in December 2010, has been brought forward.

Nothing but a public relations intervention seems to have been planned.

Now I need a place to hide away...

This summit has been a hideaway for the government.

From the expected culmination and terminal point of a debate that has been ongoing for more than two years, the event has become the springboard for no less than five new forums, one future summit and one discussion group that are not expected to report before 2014.

The only major decision made has been that of adjusting tuition fees to the cost of living (approximately at a yearly rate of 3 per cent). That measure could have been announced and implemented long ago, as the government announced its intentions of going in that direction at the beginning of the summit, before it was even discussed by the participants.

To be fair, getting away from the myth of the freezing tuition fees is an accomplishment in itself, and is a significant step forward in the positioning of that government. However, it is by itself nowhere close to offering a viable solution to the financial challenges of Québec universities. That is even more true when one takes into account Pauline Marois' decision to cut $250-million from public funding to universities for the next years and further cuts affecting research performed in universities.

Discussion is important. Consensus is desirable. But our universities cannot wait forever. And a knowledge based economy is not build solely out of hopes and good intentions

I believe in yesterday....

Is not a sufficient thing to say.