Public Values

Simmering Quebec set to boil

Promised cuts to social program spending and a doubling of university tuition fees ignite Quebec's social movement.

Students take to the streets in Quebec City during a Adrian Kaats

The Quebec government, run by Jean Charest's Parti Libéral du Québec (PLQ), has promised a 2012 austerity budget which, along with a number of anticipated cuts to social programs, is expected to implement the largest university tuition fee increase in Quebec's history. What has been perceived as a coordinated and persistent attack on Quebec's social systems, culminating in this shot to the heart of Quebec's student movement, has the potential to unleash a chain reaction leading to the largest protests in recent Canadian history. This reaction, however, may end in Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe's suggested 2015 referendum on Quebec sovereignty.

In 2007, Charest's government lifted Quebec's "freeze" on university tuition fees. The freeze was put into effect in 1994 and renewed in 1996, maintaining tuition rates at 1994 levels. The 2007 lifting of the freeze has increased tuition by $50 per semester and will continue until 2012 when a new tuition fee increase regime is promised.

At its April 2010 general council meeting, the PLQ voted for a resolution to increase Quebec resident tuition fees to the Canadian national average. Based on the 2010/2011 national average tuition rate provided by Statistics Canada, Quebec's tuition rates provided by the Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec (CREPUQ) — a voluntary membershhip-based not-for-profit corporation representing the administrations of Quebec's 17 universities — and the average annual increase of both fee rates, PLQ plans would have Quebec tuition fees increase by 135 percent, the largest increase in the province's history.*

When the present set of tuition fee increases concludes in 2012, the $500 total increase will have spiked Quebec's university tuition fees by more than 30 percent. At the time this plan was announced, analysts estimated that the increases would result in between 6,000 and 13,000 Quebec residents no longer having access to university education. The high end of those estimates has come to be, and as one might expect, those occupying Quebec's lower socio-economic strata have been hit hardest.


The socio-economics of tuition fee increases has almost every organization concerned with Quebec's social systems, from unions to student groups, up in arms about the Charest government's plan. During its general assembly on the 30th of November, the Fédération des travailleurs du Québec (FTQ) — the province's largest union representing over 500,000 workers — adopted a position demanding free post-secondary education (PSE). The motivation stems from the assertion that, "The universities aren't businesses. They are places of learning, and everyone must have access." Central to their dissatisfaction is that if Charest's proposals come to pass, "It's not the education of the children of the rich that is endangered."

The FTQ's resolution follows the November unveiling of a new coalition, the Alliance sociale (AS). AS membership includes seven of Quebec's largest unions — including the FTQ, the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN), and the Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ), representing a combined nearly 1,000,000 workers — and its two largest student groups — the Fédération Étudiante collégiale du Québec (FECQ) and the Fédération Étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ), representing a combined 170,000 post-secondary education (PSE) students.

In its "Déclaration commune de l'Alliance sociale," entitled "Un autre Québec est possible," AS argues that "tuition increases are a false solution to problems with the financing of higher education which are hitting with full force the most disadvantaged and their families." Tuition increases, "only turn attention away from the urgent need to proceed toward major public investment in education."

Also in November, the Table des partenaires universitaires (TPU) released its Quebec University Manifesto, "For a free, accessible, democratic, and public university." The TPU was formed to represent the Quebec university community, and counts eleven professional unions and student groups as its members, including the Fédération nationale des enseignantes et enseignants du Québec (FNEEQ), representing 27,000 educators, the Association pour une solidarité syndicale Étudiante (ASSÉ), representing 45,000 PSE students, and the Table de concertation Étudiante du Québec (TaCEQ), representing another 65,000 university students. The TPU's manifesto demands "a massive reinvestment in Quebec's university institutions, financed by equitable and collective means," and that Quebec's government "abandon its plan to impose a new tuition fee increase in 2012."

In September, after the PLQ resolved to raise tuition fees once again, both the FEUQ and the FECQ launched a joint campaign to oppose the increases. ASSE has a standing position demanding free PSE, and TaCEQ, has a similar position to that of FEUQ and FECQ. While FEUQ and FECQ have promised escalating pressure tactics to stop tuition fee increases, ASSE has already begun mobilizing its members for a general student strike.

As of December 1st, twenty-three university and Collège d'enseignement général et professionnel (CEGEP) student associations in Quebec have voted for strike mandates to oppose tuition increases. Those associations represent 44,000 students. Another eleven student associations are scheduled to vote on similar mandates in the coming weeks, and will likely add another 40,000 students to the ranks. In the coming months, more are expected to seek strike mandates.

On December 2, CREPUQ, which has consistently echoed the government's positions on tuition fees, became the first organization to date to propose a concrete plan for tuition fee increases. CREPUQ's proposal would see Quebec resident university tuition rates increase by $504 per year over three years starting in 2012, a 70 percent increase. Although officially the government has remained silent about its plans, a ministerial leak obtained by ASSE in October revealed that the government has been considering three different plans for implementing tuition fee increases, one of which is identical to that proposed by CREPUQ.

Although, according to the TPU's manifesto, there is "unanimity behind the issue of [university] underfunding," several analysts warn that the rhetoric surrounding underfunding used by the government and PSE administrators is being misapplied when used to justify tuition fee increases. More than a decade's worth of research has indicated that tuition fee increases have consistently been met by government cutbacks to education financing. In order to balance its budget, the cost of PSE is being shifted from the taxpayer to the student, in what is widely regarded as a commodification of education, and a continuation of a privatization of PSE in the province.

TPU points out, "that the government of Quebec is obliged to recognize education as a right, not an economic privilege, by virtue of its commitment to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, ratified in 1976." Article 13b of the United Nations' Covenant states that, "Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education," echoing and advancing Article 26 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The knowledge economy

In their 2007 publication "Gratuité scolaire: Trois scénarios d'application," the Institut de recherche et d'informations socio-économiques (IRIS) demonstrates that with only a 0.2 percent annual increase in Quebec's budget, spread over 10 years, the Quebec government could abolish PSE tuition fees entirely. Instead, the government has engaged in a regime of privatizing PSE financing and converting PSE institutions from teaching and curiosity-based research establishments to engines of commercializable product output for what it calls "the knowledge economy."

This transition is taking place in three ways: changes to university governance and bureaucratic structures, changes to university financing, and consequently changes to the university's primary mission. This fall, the Quebec government re-introduced a bill to alter the composition of university governing boards, requiring that two-thirds of its members be external to the university community. These external members are typically drawn from Quebec's business elite.

In terms of financing, the government has significantly decreased its investment — down 16 percent in the period from 1988 to 2002 — and increasingly resorted to public-private-partnerships (PPP). IRIS' 2009 publication "Les PPP dans les universités québécoises," shows that the increasing number of PPPs between universities and corporations has the result that "the public partner, in assuming all the risk, writes a blank cheque to its private partner." Public money, by way of the university, is being used surreptitiously to fund private gains. As indicated by TPU, there has been a concurrent shift in research investment priorities, "basic research is being progressively set aside in favour of heavily subsidized, immediately profitable applied projects."

These shifts in financing have been met with an internal restructuring of university bureaucracies and internal financing priorities in order to accommodate the commercialization of research. At McGill University, for instance, the Office of Technology Transfer — which "manages the University's research initiatives with industry and is responsible for commercializing the University's intellectual property" — has more than doubled in size in the past decade, and relocated to the same building as the university's Office of Sponsored Research (formerly the Research Grants Office). The number of patents issued to McGill — McGill obtained an average of 28 U.S. patents peer year between 2000 and 2004, and in 2006 topped Canadian universities in biotech patents — reflects both its internal restructuring initiatives, and a 73 percent increase in industrial research funding since 2003.

In a 2010 paper, "La gouvernance des universités dans l'Économie du savoir," IRIS explains that the entrepreneurial motif taking over university administration and governance is motivating universities to produce marketable research to feed the emerging "knowledge economy." This transition, they argue, is resulting in a "profound restructuring of societal relationships which is diverting public funds — in this case, those of the university towards private interests."

TPU argues that combined, changes to university governance and financing are fundamentally altering the primary mission of universities, shifting it away from "the development and transmission of knowledge and culture as well as the development of critical thinking, with an eye to contributing to social and human development," towards, "immediately profitable projects." TPU warns that "Those proposals that would save universities' finances by extending user fees and privatization, would only add oil to the fire."

IRIS warns that tuition fee increases are only one piece of a larger program indicating a general divestment of publicly financed and operated social services including PSE. The goal of applying or increasing social program access fees, IRIS argues in "La révolution tarifaire au Québec," is "not motivated by the re-establishment of balanced budgeting, but by a political project aimed at profoundly transforming the role of the state... the government is operating to dismantle the collective financing of public services in favour of individualized financing based on the principal of the 'user-payer.'"

These arguments are echoed by the AS which claims that a "well-orchestrated strategy of factual deformations, counter-truths, and alarmist proposals of all kinds... serve as a web upon which to justify a turn towards privatization and tarification of [social] services based on the principle of the user-payer, and this for the goal of laying on the shoulders of the user an increasing portion of the financing of these services."

The Coalition opposée à la tarification et à la privatisation des services publics (COTPSP) counts more than 115 Quebec community and activist groups, unions, and student groups. The coalition was formed to "counter the neo-liberal intentions of the Charest government which are promoting the regression of state revenue, all while diminishing the resources dedicated to public services, inviting the private sector to fulfil the fundamental missions the government is meant to assume."

Although the COTPSP is calling for a generalized "Grève sociale," the government's plans for university tuition are the epicentre of Quebec mobilization against the implementation of access fees for, and the privatization of, social programs. "The university we want is also the world we want," argues TPU which, at its launch, proposed the following question, "What will remain of Quebec once its higher education institutions have become labour production machines for leading industries? For if the university is scuttled, it is primarily because our entire society has been set adrift." Quebec's universities are being explicitly set as the primary battleground for maintaining the societal principles established in the province's Quiet Revolution.


Although the Quebec government's position to increase tuition fees is a fait accompli, the manner in which it will occur has yet to be officially discussed. The "actual" government plans were expected to be at least part of the substance of December 6th's second Rencontres des partenaires en Éducation, hosted by Quebec's Ministère de l'Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport, held in Quebec city. The Rencontres bring together "representatives of teaching staff, support staff, school administrators, school boards, different associations, parents, and ministerial partners" to discuss "crucial questions about the future of education in Quebec."

Between 1,500 and 2,000 students, teachers, and workers converged on the province's capital to protest the government's plans to increase tuition, and demand that the Rencontres engage in a debate about PSE financing that would challenge the government's position. When participants refused to entertain this dialogue, one third of the Rencontres' participants — members of the TPU and AS — left the meeting in protest. According to the FEUQ, "The minister organized a phoney exercise to make the appearance of listening. The students could not sanction this exercise which had the exclusive goal of justifying an even greater increase to tuition fees."

In exiting the meeting, the leaders of the CSN and CSQ respectively condemned the government for "magical thinking" in her assertion that a "massive increase in tuition wouldn't affect accessibility," and "failing on all counts" to "listen to the assembly of education system representatives." The AS had "no choice but to close the door on the meeting," according to the leader of the FTQ, who claimed that "since the beginning of the Rencontres, we haven't felt like our position has been listened to."

In 2005, when a comparatively small budget initiative stripped $103 million from Quebec's student financial aid program, months of province wide student protests crippled the CEGEP and university system culminating in nearly 100,000 students taking to the streets. The December 6th rally in front of the Rencontres marks the first large scale mobilization against tuition fee increases in what is set to be a tumultuous 2011. This time, the students are not alone. With the support of Quebec's unions, and the coordination of the TPU, AS and COTPSP, we can expect la belle province, and the more than a 1.25 million Quebeckers these organizations represent, to take its place on the international stage in what has become a global protest against cuts to education in western democracies.

Political repercussions

But what does this foretell about the larger Quebec political scene? A few months ago, it appeared as though Quebec's political right was poised for a dramatic rally. The Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ), Quebec's current right wing party, lost 34 of its 41 seats in the last election. The space it left on the right looked like it would be filled before the New Year.

In October, rumblings began about a new party with the expected name Force Québec, under the leadership of former Parti Québécois (PQ) member, François Legault. Such a party would likely have garnered the support of Lucien Bouchard, former leader of the PQ, founder of the federal Bloc Québécois, former federal Progressive Conservative, and now "leader" of the right wing lobbying group Pour un Québec lucide. In concert with movements such as the Réseau Liberté-Québec, the province's version of the US Tea Party, all eyes expected to see a coordinated uprising of right wing politics in the province. But Jean Charest and his PLQ might have killed their momentum.

Charest's PLQ, despite their name, are undeniably a right-of-centre party. It appears few have forgotten that Charest was the leader of the federal Progressive Conservatives, and PLQ policy and maneuvering has only reaffirmed that connection. Plagued by incessant corruption scandals, however, the PLQ have brought a taint to right wing politics in Quebec, and now it's likely they won't survive the next election. Jean Charest recently won the title of least popular Premier in Canada, and voter satisfaction with his party have stayed at record lows since October.

The only two players left are the PQ and the new kid on the block, Québec solidaire (QS), both of which are sovereignist parties. In preparation for the expected PLQ ousting, the PQ will need to continue its shift to the right it hopes to recuperate enough seats to win a government in the next election. Such a move would make more room for the emergence of QS. The PQ's shift began in 2008 when it adopted the mantra of the "knowledge economy," terminology equally used by the PLQ, and which is widely regarded as code for privatization of education, and the demise of a labour based industry.

Although the PQ has traditionally had deep ties with the province's unions, given its positions and the current political climate, a shift to the right lends itself to QS becoming the natural ally of both student groups and organized labour. In fact, QS's founding principles and its 2008 election platform are the only provincial political party positions to align perfectly with the precepts of the TPU, AS and COTPSP. If the taint on right-wing politics holds, and Charest has never been one not to stick to his guns even when they backfire, we're probably looking at a PQ government in the next election, with an opposition that might include a significant number of QS seats.

2011 is going to be one of the most interesting years in Quebec politics we've seen in quite some time. A great deal of the looming election tug-of-war will be catalyzed by, if not centred around the student movement and how its issues form a common front with Quebec's unions and political parties. It seems that by continually attacking Quebec's social systems, from the suggestion of user fees for health care, through cuts to family care programs, to a persistent attack on the financing of the education system, and coupled with corporate and high income tax breaks, Jean Charest has finally managed to wake the beast that is Quebec's combined labour and student movements.

What nobody seems to be talking about is how all this points to a resurgence in Quebec nationalism. The principle rhetoric of tuition fee increases is that Quebec should not be afforded a "special" tuition regime — its tuition rates should rise to the Canadian national average. The convergence of Quebec ideology which opposes tuition fee increases, and on a larger scale, the modes of privatisation of the province's social programs, is placed in stark juxtaposition to what has happened and is happening in the rest of Canada. Quebec, once again, is not claiming to be unique, it is behaving uniquely. Nowhere in Canada has such a coordinated ideological opposition to a "neo-liberal/conservative" agenda taken shape.

The provincial party promoting the transition of Quebec into the national regime of governmental divestment of social programs is federalist. The provincial parties opposing this transition — the only ones directly linked to the province's massively popular and sovereignist Bloc Québecois — and supporting the growing coalitions of Quebec unions, student and community groups, are sovereignists. As attempts are made to explicitly force Quebec into the Canadian mould in a manner perceived to be tearing at the Quiet Revolution's fundamental vision, one can expect Québec solidaire's "cri du coeur" to gain traction, "our social project and our national project are intimately linked." The board is set.

* In 2012, with the addition of the current tuition fee increase regime's $100 to the 2010/2011 rates, Quebec tuition will be $2,268 in 2012, when the new tuition fee increase regime begins. The average increase in the Canadian national average tuition rate over the past four years has been $189 per year, according to Statistics Canada. If this average holds, in 2012, the national average tuition rate will be $5,237. Thus, bringing the 2012 Quebec tuition rate to the expected 2012 national average tuition rate will constitute a 134.9 percent increase.

Adrian Kaats is an Engineering PhD student at Montreal's McGill University, a columnist for the McGill Daily, and a student activist.

Related individuals, organizations and significant events
Déclaration commune de l'Alliance sociale, Un autre Québec est possible

Tarification de l'Éducation postsecondaire ou gratuité scolaire? IRIS

McGill tops Canadian universities in biotech patents

Munroe-Blum presents plans for tuition hikes

Rencontres des partenaires en Éducation

Les membres de l'Alliance sociale claquent la porte de la Rencontre des partenaires en Éducation

Rencontre des partenaires universitaires: la communauté universitaire s'unit de nouveau pour condamner la dérive de l'université québécoise

Williams and Wall Are Most Popular Premiers in Canada; Charest Lowest

What Harper might tell Charest

McGuinty, Charest, Campbell least favourite current premiers: poll

Pour un Québec lucide

Legault's movement would fill a vacuum in Quebec

Is Quebec's latest "third force" just ADQ redux?

Quebec's Liberal government engulfed by scandals and crisis

PQ – Plateforme Électorale du 2008 – Plan Marois

Québec solidaire

Québec solidaire — Elections Commitments

Links and sources
  Duceppe envisions sovereign Quebec by 2015
  Lancement de la campagne annuelle de la FECQ et la FEUQ: La hausse des frais de scolarité, Ça suffit!
  Undergraduate tuition fees for full time Canadian students, by discipline, by province
  Quebec universities under-funded by $620 million
  Congrès de la FTQ adopte une résolution sur la gratuité scolaire
  Recherche de la CREPUQ : L'ASSÉ appelle la prudence au sujet du
  ASSÉ reports leaked government tuition plan
  Mémoire sur la gratuité scolaire
  Sous-financement des universités — Aux Étudiants de payer, disent les recteurs
  Un manifeste de l'université québécoise

Posted: December 19, 2010

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