With less than two weeks before the big education partners meeting in Quebec City, student groups, along with staff and faculty unions, are trying to get out in front of the debate.
Last week, Quebec’s largest student lobby group, the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, released a major survey on student finances.
Today, it’s a manifesto (in French) signed by pretty much every student and labour umbrella group that is involved with post-secondary education in Quebec.
All three of Quebec’s active student lobby groups have signed the document: FÉUQ; the smaller, more radical, Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante and the newer and smaller Table de concertation étudiante du Québec.
The group which represents continuing education students’ associations, who usually keep a low profile, are also on board.
On the labour side are umbrella groups representing professors, lecturers, non-academic professionals, as well as university-related branches of two of Quebec’s largest trade federations and the Public Service Alliance of Canada.
So what are they calling for? Universities that are “free, accessible, public and democratic.” (That’s free as in the French word “libre,” not free as in “gratuit.”)
Basically, they want to see the provincial government invest more in universities, freeze tuition and reform the financial aid system so students graduate with less, or no, debt. The manifesto claims that the funding for this could be raised from cracking down on tax evaders and cutting corporate tax breaks.
But it’s also about a vision for universities and rejecting the idea of a “knowledge economy,” or at least the idea that universities should be subject to market forces.
These groups say they want universities to be high-minded places where knowledge is pursued, not just places where the next generation of workers are trained.
The manifesto also contains calls for university autonomy. This is mostly in response to government plans that would require university boards of directors to include a certain percentage of “independent” members, ie. people from the community at large, not the university.
It also takes a lot of shots at the “lucides.”
At their press conference today, the groups behind the manifesto said they had given up on the current consultations, like the education partners meeting next month, and want to see much broader public consultations on the future of universities.
This isn’t surprising. It does seem like the education partners meeting is more for show than actual consultation, so it makes sense for these groups, who don’t like the direction the government is taking, to try and delegitimize the process.
But it seems unlikely that this will have any effect on the government’s plans.
Jean Charest’s government is in a bad situation, its policies are pleasing no one and there’s a haze of corruption allegations surrounding it. There will definitely be some policy shifts, but if the government changes course on post-secondary education it’s probably not going to be toward the vision put forward in this manifesto.
This sort of document, with its broad social vision and message that Quebec doesn’t have to be like the U.S. and the rest of Canada, plays well with the Parti Québécois base. In other words, it appeals to people who probably didn’t support the Liberals in the first place and oppose them for a whole host of reasons beyond education.
If Charest tries to win anyone over with his higher education policies it’s far more likely to be the business community, the “lucides,” who are calling for the exact opposite.