06/11/2012 05:04 EDT | Updated 08/11/2012 05:12 EDT

McGill principal: bad information, various agendas have fuelled Quebec protests

MONTREAL - The head of a top Quebec university says the province's protest movement has been fuelled by misguided and distorted information about tuition fees.

The principal of McGill University told The Canadian Press that many unfounded assumptions are underpinning the student opposition to lifting the province's tuition freeze.

Heather Munroe-Blum said a general lack of information about the state of Quebec's post-secondary education system has helped perpetuate the student conflict.

She also blamed a diversity of agendas for complicating matters. Along with students keen to discuss tuition policy, she said, there are people joining street protests for fun, unions, and ideological groups including anarchists, each with divergent interests.

Over the last month, student protests have expanded to include criticism of Quebec's anti-protest legislation, its alleged government corruption and the capitalist order in general.

In a series of interviews on Monday, with media both inside and outside of Canada, Munroe-Blum attempted to focus attention again on the issue that initiated the months-long conflict in the first place: tuition fees.

She critiqued the idea — frequently raised by protesters — that Quebec's tuition hikes must be stopped because they are a first step towards a financially prohibitive U.S.-style education model.

The original goal of the hikes was to bring Quebec tuition closer to the Canadian average, said Munroe-Blum, arguing the province's universities face a $700 million funding gap compared to their counterparts in the rest of Canada.

"The notion that that is aiming for an American-style tuition fee is just unformed, or distorted, or a combination of both," Munroe-Blum said.

"We aim for the quality of the great universities of the world on a publicly purposed, dominantly government-supported mandate."

Top-ranked universities in the U.S. can charge undergraduates as much as $50,000 a year in tuition. That has led to growing concerns about the volatility that high student debt loads are introducing into the American economy.

Some experts even warn that student debt represents as big a danger to financial markets as sub-prime mortgages once did.

In Quebec, the student movement often uses the U.S. education model as a cautionary tale about where tuition increases could ultimately lead.

They say the proposed increases — the current figure is $254 annually for seven years, to just over $3,800 annually — would reduce access to undergraduate degrees.

Not true, according to Munroe-Blum.

She points to studies that suggest Quebec, with its tuition fees that are the lowest in Canada, also has lower-than-average university completion rates.

"I don't think the average Quebecer knows what the information shows about the relationship between the education level of Quebecers and the funding of the university system," she said.

"The average citizen is very unaware of the fact that low tuition over the last decade, and more, in Quebec did not lead to a higher university participation rate."

She added that under the current system, not enough financial resources are reaching students in need. The provincial government would increase loans and bursaries under its new university-funding plan.

Keeping the education debate in Quebec focused on tuition has become difficult recently.

Over the weekend, students attempted to use Montreal's Formula One Grand Prix as a platform for their fight against the government.

At various points, though, they were joined by an anti-capitalist group, a Bahrain solidarity group as well as feminist groups — leading some to question what the connection was between the different causes.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest posited one on Monday by referring to the student conflict as an ideological battle, and not a policy dispute.

"What we have seen over the last few weeks is more than just dealing with tuition fees, it's extreme leftist groups who are trying to intimidate people through violence," Charest said Monday at an international economic conference in Montreal.

For Munroe-Blum, the movement has attracted all manner of fellow travellers — along with those who are serious about having a conversation on tuition. That has complicated the task of arriving at some sort of resolution between government and students, she said.

"Whatever the demonstrations mean, it has become very muddled," Munroe-Blum said from her wood-panelled office looking out on McGill's downtown campus.

"How do you — and to what extent is it appropriate to — say in this context, 'We're going to have very serious, focused debate?'"

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