Quebec raises tuition, but students won't pay more in tentative deal

QUEBEC CITY — The Globe and Mail

Quebec's Minister of Education Line Beauchamp speaks to the media following a round of negotiations with the student's association in Quebec City, May 5, 2012. (MATHIEU BELANGER/REUTERS)

At the end of a 22-hour negotiating marathon, Quebec students and the provincial government reached a tentative agreement Saturday over university tuition-fee increases, which should put an end to Canada’s longest-running student protest.

The deal allowed both sides to claim victory as they scrambled to save face in the aftermath of a difficult and sometimes violent conflict.

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Under the new agreement, the government’s proposed a $254-a-year fee increase over seven years remained unchanged. However, this increase will be reduced an equivalent amount by trimming the surcharges universities charge students each year.

All of the student groups, including the more militant Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante or C.L.A.S.S.E., which represents half of the striking students, signed the tentative deal. They said the government bowed under pressure after weeks of demonstrations and sometimes violent protests.

“What this shows is that our mobilization has bared fruit. Remember just a few weeks ago the government refused to talk to us,” said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the spokesperson for C.L.A.S.S.E. “This is proof that our strike action worked.”

The student representatives will take the deal to their members, saying they had achieved the tuition fee freeze that they had set out to get.

The increase in tuition will be offset by an equal reduction in other fees students are typically charged. Students currently pay an average of $800 in annual university surcharges, which usually fund non-academic activities and various student services.

It will be up to a newly formed provisional university council made up of representatives of student groups and the teachers union, university directors, and business and government representatives to identify what savings can be transferred to students.

The council will examine university spending practices and cost-saving measures. Those savings will be passed on to students to help cover the tuition fee hike. In January 2013, the provisional council will become permanent.

According to Education Minister Line Beauchamp, students won’t have to pay the fee hike at the beginning of the year. The amount will be adjustable. The provisional council will identify what savings can be made by December 2012, then a final bill will be sent to students taking into account the savings that will reduce the university surcharges.

“The fee increase is maintained,” Ms. Beauchamp explained. “If savings can be identified by the council, the savings will be reduced from the mandatory university surcharges.”

“We can say this is a theoretical freeze, a moratorium” said Léo Bureau-Blouin, president of the college student federation. “We are not going to allow students to pay higher tuition fees if we can’t make the demonstration that universities ... aren’t able to better manage their funds.”

Quebec Premier Jean Charest remained cautious, perhaps withholding an expression of triumph until Sunday when he speaks to delegates at the party’s weekend convention who believe the Liberals may soon be in an election campaign as a result of the deal.

“Talks went well. People worked hard.” Mr. Charest said.

It will take at least a week for the colleges and universities, still on strike, to vote on the deal. Until then, the protesters have no intentions of letting-up.

“This is not the end of the strike. It is the beginning of the end of the conflict,” said the president of the federation of university students, Martine Desjardins.

The student leaders argued that by accepting this deal, the government finally acknowledged that universities were poorly managing public funds by agreeing to have the council oversee their spending practices rather than simply footing the bill.

Leader of the province’s three major labour organizations played a key role in helping to broker the deal after backing students for weeks to organize their protest movement.

The president of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux, Louis Roy, said the deal would pave the way to resolving the current crisis.

“This is excellent news for the population of Quebec,” Mr. Roy said. “We helped facilitate the talks and bring the parties to another level of discussion.”

For weeks now, the crisis has been the focus of media attention and has derailed the Charest government’s political agenda. Mr. Charest failed to measure the tenacity and determination of the student movement. For weeks, his government refused to negotiate with the students. It was only after some colleges and universities threatened to cancel the winter session that the government took the students seriously.

With both sides in deadlock and the threat of increasing social unrest, Mr. Charest made a series of proposals in an attempt to break the impasse. But the students resisted until finally, the labour leaders were brought in to help pave the way for talks to begin in earnest.

Without a deal, Mr. Charest was forced to reconsider the possibility of calling an election this spring. But that may now change and the opposition parties were convinced that a spring election was still possible.

“With Mr. Charest we never know what to expect,” Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois said. “What I deplore is that he waited 82 days to reach a deal. ... I think Mr. Charest is responsible for this crisis and the students and parents paid a heavy price for it.”

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