Press-Republican

May 20, 2013

Difficult year for Quebec universities

By DAN HEATH Press-Republican
Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — The last year was a tumultuous one for universities in Quebec.

Michael Goldbloom, principal and vice chancellor of Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Quebec, provided his views on the state of higher education in the province when he delivered his recent Distinguished Quebec Address at SUNY Plattsburgh.

Proposed tuition hikes led to student riots in spring 2012, which has come to be known as the Maple Spring. 

“I still believe, as an issue of public policy, tuition increases were the right thing to do,” Goldbloom said.

When Quebec underwent what is now known as the Quiet Revolution, starting in the 1960s, part of that was a shift from a church-based education system to one headed by the government. 

Goldbloom said there were 23,000 university students and seven universities in the province in 1963, compared to 270,000 students and 18 universities today. He said most Quebec residents would have to agree the investment in education is one of the wisest decisions provincial leaders have made.

’WHO SHOULD PAY?’

The government made the decision to freeze university tuition in 1970. The policy was guided by good intentions, Goldbloom said, but it has become increasingly unsustainable due to rising costs and the economic downturn.

The universities in Quebec are underfunded by about $800 million compared to those in the other provinces, he said. It is extremely difficult for the government to challenge the freeze, because their opponents would use that position to their political advantage in the next election.

The average tuition to a Quebec university is about $2,000 a year, compared to about $8,000 a year in the rest of Canada. When the policy went into effect, a student paid about 26 percent of the cost of their education, a figure that has dropped to about 14 percent.

The consensus in the province is that anyone with drive and ability should be able to go to college, he said. The question is increasingly becoming who should pay for it.

Quebec’s Liberal Party government announced in its 2011 budget it would increase tuition $300 a year for five successive years starting in the fall of 2012, which would make tuition still only about half that in the other provinces.

That gave opponents too much time to gather their forces, Goldbloom said. It didn’t help that the policy was to take effect at about the same time of a general election in Quebec.

The Liberal Party government was also unlucky there was beautiful weather on the day of the first protest, he noted. More than 100,000 people, mainly students, took to the streets, followed by daily protests for weeks on end.

The Party Quebecois and unions supported the student protests, with some unions even paying for buses to transport protesters. 

Some students even went on strike and blocked others from attending classes. The crisis was temporarily diffused in spring 2012 when universities where students were on strike closed, with plans to reopen later in the year. 

The Party Quebecois won the election last year and rolled back the tuition increases. While it seems that ended the crisis, Goldbloom said, the universities are still dealing with the factors that led for a push for the increase in the first place. 

He believes those who can afford it should pay for a larger percentage of their education, with government subsidies for those who can’t.

“I think it’s going to be a long time before a new Quebec government takes on this issue,” Goldbloom said.

Email Dan Heath:dheath@pressrepublican.com