07/05/2012 03:29 EDT | Updated 09/04/2012 05:12 EDT

Quebec Student Protests: University, College Access To Broaden In Province

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MONTREAL - The Quebec government has quietly adopted several controversial measures it says will broaden access to higher education in the province.

Student groups, however, contend the measures will have the opposite effect and actually increase student debt loads.

The policies were first announced during the spring amid a dramatic showdown with university and college students fighting tuition hikes. It was hoped they would lessen tensions in a months-long protest that had, at times, turned violent.

Student associations criticized the proposals when they were first announced, saying they did little to address their concerns about rising student debt.

But the government pushed ahead with its plans to draw the hike out over seven years, instead of five. It will also increase funding for loans and bursaries.

The office of Education Minister Michelle Courchesne issued a news release on Thursday that said the measures were formally adopted by cabinet earlier in the week.

That allows them to be in place by the time university students return to class in September.

"It is very important for the Quebec government to maintain accessibility to the university system, as much for middle-class students as for those with lower incomes," Courchesne said in the statement.

"The government, therefore, acted quickly to make the financial aid announced last April available as of this fall."

A number of proposals made during the spring to defuse the conflict will now become official government policy:

— The tuition hike will now amount to annual raises of $254 for seven years. Initially it had been slated to be $325 over five years.

— More families will become eligible for loans and bursaries.

— And students will be able to repay loans in proportion to their income after graduation.

Quebec student groups are suspicious of the moves, which come amid speculation of an election sometime in early September.

The new measures stem from a report by a legislative body tasked with studying education issues. The report, which examined what impact the government's proposals would have on accessibility, was not released.

Martine Desjardins, who heads one of the largest striking student associations, believes it may have concluded the government's measures would actually reduce accessibility, not increase it.

"The government seems to have paved the way with a news release before the report is even made public," she said.

"It leads us to believe... that on the eve of an election campaign they're trying to calm things down."

Desjardins argued that the Liberal government's approach is unbalanced. With more money set aside for loans than bursaries, she said students will only see their debt levels rise.

She also said experiments with proportional repayment schemes in other countries have been problematic.

In Australia, she said, the debt load of lower-income students rose more quickly than debt levels for higher-income students.

She reiterated earlier statements by her fellow student leaders about the proposals, and accused the government of ignoring the central issue of the strike: student debt.

"Not only does it not address the problem, it avoids it completely," Desjardins said.

Nightly demonstrations against the tuition hikes have continued in Montreal but are much smaller than the ones in the spring.

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