02/12/2013 02:50 EST | Updated 04/14/2013 05:12 EDT

Memorable debate over zero tuition pits biographer vs. his subject in Quebec

QUEBEC - A memorable debate is shaping up over the principle of zero tuition in Quebec.

The idea of cancelling tuition altogether is not among the options being considered by the Parti Quebecois government as it struggles to find a university funding formula following a year of unrest.

There's one problem: former PQ premier Jacques Parizeau, a hero to the party's rank and file, has just gone public with a forceful call for the government to consider the policy.

He notes that free university was always the intention when, back in the 1960s, he was a provincial civil servant and the modern university network was created.

Parizeau's public musings have set up an interesting dilemma.

The government minister responsible for the file is rookie politician Pierre Duchesne — who in his previous life was a journalist, and who just so happened to be Parizeau's biographer.

The biographer-versus-subject dynamic comes two weeks before a critical gathering.

At the Feb. 25-26 summit on higher education, the government intends to propose a freeze on tuition followed by small increases indexed to inflation.

That plan falls somewhere between the freeze or the reduction that various student groups are demanding, and the significant increases proposed by the former Liberal government which triggered months of protests. A recent poll suggested the PQ's middle-ground solution had strong support.

But Parizeau said he can't understand why the zero-tuition idea has been discarded so quickly.

In an interview with Le Devoir, he said the obsession with balancing the budget next year has made the government incapable of considering other policy options.

"Can we afford (free tuition)? Of course we can. We need to consider it," Parizeau told the newspaper in an interview published Tuesday.

"For more than 20 years Quebec society operated under the assumption there would eventually be free tuition once the fees didn't amount to much, through inflation. The fact that young people today want to discuss that, well, an entire generation expected the same thing.

"They're not abnormal. They're not strange. It's ridiculous to shun them."

It's well known that Quebec is the most heavily indebted province. At the same time, it offers a university education for the lowest rates in the country.

However, proponents of free education say the goal is entirely affordable as demonstrated in other societies that have made it a priority.

For instance, the money collected from student fees in Quebec amounted to $709 million before the 2011 budget in which the Liberals introduced their fee-hike plan.

That sum amounted to barely one per cent of the province's $67 billion budget at the time.

In comparison, Statistics Canada figures from 2008 state that the province spent about eight times the $709 million — $5.7 billion — on business subsidies, which critics deride as "corporate welfare."

Tuition fees have been frozen in Quebec for most of the last four decades, with the first significant hike occurring in 1989.

Parizeau, a former finance minister and economics PhD from the London School of Economics, had a front-row seat as the modern school system was put together.

He was a provincial civil servant and an economic adviser to premiers Jean Lesage, a Liberal, and Daniel Johnson Sr. of the now-defunct Union nationale.

He said the initial intention was to make universities as free as high schools and junior colleges, known as CEGEPs.

"But when we got to the universities we realized we didn't have the money to make it free,'' he told Le Devoir. ''It's what we wanted to do, but we didn't have the means.

"So we took the average of the existing tuition rates at universities in Quebec at the time. We set the rate at $567 everywhere, and decided to freeze it and let inflation chip away at it. We all agreed. There was an obvious social consensus."

As it stands, tuition starts at just over $2,000 a year for students from Quebec, although out-of-province students pay higher rates.

The Liberal government wanted to increase that amount to just more than $3,600 — but the newly elected PQ has reversed that plan and is seeking a new funding model.

Members of the government were left performing a delicate task Tuesday: either rejecting Parizeau's argument without offending him, or the many party members who revere him as their intellectual leader.

"This is a man of tremendous experience, of knowledge, offering his perspective," said Jean-Francois Lisee, a former adviser to Parizeau who is now a heavyweight in the PQ cabinet.

"That (perspective) is not shared by the government at this time, but the government has said that free tuition would also be debated."

He noted that while one PQ ex-premier supports free tuition, another, Bernard Landry, supports the government indexation solution. Lisee called it an example of healthy debate.

Parizeau is the last PQ premier to call an independence referendum and is considered to be the party's most forceful strategist. However, he has drifted away from his PQ roots and has begun building ever-increasing ties with the upstart pro-independence party Option nationale.

Option nationale did not win any seats in the last provincial election but Pequistes are wary of bleeding any support to that new party, which promises a more aggressive pursuit of Quebec statehood.

The minority government says it's committed to balancing the books in 2013-14 and can't afford free tuition.

"The contribution of Mr. Parizeau is that of an intellectual, of a free thinker. He has a right to make it and the government will make its own decisions," said Municipal Affairs Minister Sylvain Gaudreault. He said he doesn't view Parizeau's comments as a repudiation of the government.

"Every time Mr. Parizeau blinks, if we see a disavowal, it'll never end."

-With files from Martin Ouellet