Quebec’s Summit on Higher Education is destined to fail

Toula Foscolos
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Not to be overly pessimistic, but with only three weeks to go before the Summit on Higher Education starts (Feb. 25-26), its potential to be the instigator for a major breakthrough in Quebec’s education system, is, sad to say, already dead in the water.

Toula Foscolos

A mere three weeks away and there’s still no sign of an agenda or a list of proposals to be discussed, or even something as basic as a list of the parties to be attending! This is a summit, not a rave. People should know in advance, whether they’re invited, where they’re going and what they’ll be doing. This top-level secrecy only signifies a reticence (or at best, a confusion) on the government’s part, which confirms many people’s suspicions (mine, as well), that this gloriously oversold summit was to be nothing more than a carrot stick dangled in front of the Maple Spring students so they would trot to the voting booths a little more earnestly during recent elections and vote PQ in droves. Well it worked, didn’t it?

A few months later, and now it’s time for the government to pay the piper and make true on their (vague, at best) promises. A summit will be held, but it turns out – surprise! surprise! – free education won’t be on the table.

Almost immediately, L’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSE) issued an angry ultimatum, threatening to walk out (of a summit, I might add, they haven’t even been informally invited to, yet) if the possibility of free education isn’t put back on the agenda.

Ultimatums never bode well for anyone. Not for those issuing them, nor those receiving them. How can anything be discussed in a climate of openness and good will, if those about to participate are already planning their boycott strategy?

While I admire and ultimately support Quebec students’ right to defend the course of action they believe to be the best, boycotts and protests are threatening to become their way of life and a knee-jerk reaction to everything they hear that doesn’t please them.

The truth of the matter is this: only the naïve saw the PQ government’s vague promise of discussing free education at the summit as something other than what it was; a tenuous, at best, way of sidestepping the issue of tuition hikes at the time, while still maintaining the appearance of ultimately 'doing something'. And now here we are. Attempting to look like we’re 'doing something'.

As tired as I sometimes am of the students’ antics and the way they’ve occasionally held the taxpaying public hostage while taking over the streets, they are absolutely right in expecting their government to uphold a promise that was made to them. The government is dead wrong in backtracking now and free tuition should unequivocally be included in the summit.

Ultimatums never bode well for anyone. Not for those issuing them, nor those receiving them. How can anything be discussed in a climate of openness and good will, if those about to participate are already planning their boycott strategy?

It won’t matter anyway. Nothing leading up to this summit makes me conclude that anything of importance will be decided upon. There will be no breakthroughs. No real decisions made. This will indeed be a “public relations exercise and not an open debate,” as ASSE spokesperson Jérémie Bédard-Wien has feared and has publicly expressed.

Too many diametrically-opposed parties are coming together to propose fiercely contrasting solutions and ideas, as they will attempt to tackle what higher education ultimately means, how it should be financed, and ultimately by whom.

But just because this summit won’t reap the results many hope for, does not mean it will be an exercise in futility. Quality education, research, brain drain, free education, financing, indexation of tuition fees, even the issue of differential tuition (students paying different fees for different programs), are all topics highly deserving of extensive debate.

This summit is about to take place in the larger context of the Charbonneau Commission revelations, relentlessly shining the spotlight on collusion and corruption in this province. Public scrutiny is also now focused on university rectors’ salaries and top administrators’ perks, as taxpayers begin to question whether the status quo has served us all that well so far. With additional cuts of $124M to Quebec’s universities just recently announced, isn’t it perhaps time we start doing things a little differently and look outside the box for solutions?  

In times of increased vigilance and financial accountability, the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ)’s recommendation for a Commission d’évaluation des universités du Québec (CEUQ) to be created (with a mandate to review finances and funding) is not such a farfetched idea after all.

Ultimately, though, this summit is destined to fail because none of the participants will get what they come looking for. Tuition hikes and indexation will ultimately be concluded as the only viable solution right now, and students will find themselves on the street again by the end of the month.

But if everyone stops the finger pointing, the ultimatums and the accusations for a minute, maybe there’ll be room for some real debate to take place. A debate that may, ultimately, lay the groundwork for some real progress in the years to come. Here's hoping...


Organizations: ASSE, Charbonneau Commission, McGill

Geographic location: Quebec, Maple Spring

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