05/08/2012 05:02 EDT | Updated 07/08/2012 05:12 EDT

NDP's policy on Quebec student unrest: more federal cash for education

MONTREAL - The leader of the federal NDP says his party's position on the student crisis rattling Quebec is perfectly clear: it wants more federal money for post-secondary education.

Tom Mulcair bristles at the suggestion that he's forbidden his younger members from taking sides in the dispute over tuition — a charge levelled at him by opponents in his home province, particularly those of the left-leaning sovereigntist variety.

Mulcair says his caucus is united and that young New Democrat MPs, some of whom were university students just last year, understand their new role as federal politicians.

And that role doesn't involve weighing in on Quebec provincial debates, Mulcair says, even if his party now holds the bulk of the province's seats and is seen as its voice in Ottawa.

As a federal opposition party, Mulcair says the NDP responsibility is to critique the Harper government's performance on the education file and maintain pressure for investment.

"Our fight is not with the Charest government," said Mulcair, who served as a minister in Premier Jean Charest's cabinet.

"Our fight is to make sure that the federal government does its job of spending more with regards to post-secondary education," he added in an interview with The Canadian Press this week.

Any attempt to wade directly into the dispute would come with political risks for the NDP.

Polls in Quebec suggest that while the student walkouts have amassed a large following — including from key allies in the NDP's left-leaning base — a far larger share of Quebecers oppose the declared strikes. As for Quebec students themselves, two-thirds are not on strike.

Mulcair's comments in an interview came with the battle over tuition into its 13th week, with plenty more protests planned and no clear resolution in sight.

Student assemblies have been voting overwhelmingly against a deal brokered last weekend between the government and protest leaders. It appears the current deal has no chance of passing, with crushing majorities voting against it at a series of gatherings Monday and Tuesday.

Because cancelling the semester would create a chain-reaction of scheduling problems and perhaps further inflame the already rowdy protests, the provincial government sounded willing to seek out other solutions Tuesday.

Premier Charest said students who want to return to class should be allowed to do so by their peers. As for those boycotting their courses, he said he still wanted to continue a "dialogue."

When asked about Mulcair's remarks, the Harper government countered that it had invested generously in education since coming to power and that every budget increased funding for research since 2006.

Federal transfers to the provinces, on the whole, have also increased since the Conservatives took office. Transfers to Quebec, for instance, are listed by the Finance Department as having gone up 43 per cent — to $17.3 billion — since 2005-06.

But minister Gary Goodyear said Mulcair's NDP had routinely voted against those budgets.

With respect specifically to post-secondary initiatives Goodyear, the minister for science and technology, said other significant investments had been made across the board: in infrastructure and new equipment, fellowships, internships, grants, scholarships and loans.

The issue hits close to home for some in the NDP caucus. At least five Quebec NDP MPs were students in the province before being elected last year, and several others were recent graduates.

When asked whether his rookie MPs were actually allowed to speak out about Quebec's ongoing student strife, Mulcair simply said the file was his own.

In naming his shadow cabinet, Mulcair made himself the intergovernmental affairs critic — which means that issue and any other issue relating to Quebec falls on his plate.

"I'm the spokesman on it," Mulcair said in Monday's interview. "I'm the intergovernmental affairs spokesman in our caucus so it's my file."

However, he brushed aside accusations that his young party members were being stifled, a charge made especially by the Bloc Quebecois and its sister party in Quebec City.

Mulcair said there had been a, "lively discussion on the NDP's long-standing policy to have the federal government re-engage on post-secondary education and research," last weekend at an NDP meeting in Drummondville, Que.

Mulcair said the party has a coherent policy on federal funding for post-secondary education that should come without conditions, as per the party's Sherbrooke Declaration.

"We're all full-square behind that the idea that the federal government has to play a more active role on post-secondary education," Mulcair said in Monday's interview.

Mulcair pointed to an NDP private-member's bill that aims to establish certain guidelines and conditions for post-secondary funding to both social assistance programs and education funding.

"We're leaving the largest ecological, economic and social debt in history," Mulcair said.

"To know that the average student in Canada is borrowing $30,000, just to get a bachelor's degree, how is a young couple supposed buy a house with $60,000 debt?"

In Quebec, a major cash crunch for universities has prompted the governing Liberals to insist on a tuition hike, but its plan has run into stiff resistance. Under the latest version of the deal, the Quebec government would raise tuition by $254 a year for seven years, then index it to inflation.

But even with the hikes, Quebec would still have some of Canada's lowest tuition rates.