QUEBEC - The Parti Quebecois government appears to be challenging the notion that the province's universities are under-funded, a tactic that could hold significant implications it prepares to hold a highly anticipated summit on education.
The government has promised to host a symposium in February aimed at finding a long-term solution to the challenge of university funding, an event that stems from a key PQ election pledge to cancel previously planned tuition hikes.
But it is now sending signals that universities might not actually require a financial boost.
Members of the government including Premier Pauline Marois have in recent weeks been repeatedly challenging the premise that the province's universities are under-financed. On Thursday, the government even leaked a report to the media challenging that oft-repeated notion.
The report from the Department of Education said the province spent two per cent more per student than the Canadian average — $29,242, compared with $28,735 — in 2008-09. According to those four-year-old figures, the Ontario amount was $26,383, while the amount for Western provinces was higher at $32,976.
In leaking the report, the PQ informed journalists that the study was available to the previous Liberal government and suggested that the tuition crisis might have been waged over nothing.
The Charest Liberals repeatedly maintained that universities need funding increases and they cast tuition hikes as the fairest way to achieve that goal, given that Quebecers pay the highest income taxes in the country while students have the lowest tuition.
But their planned increase, of more than 70 per cent over five years, provoked a social backlash dubbed the Maple Spring.
"I think people protest loudly when they're not listened to," Marois told a news conference in Montreal, contrasting her approach with the Liberals'.
"I'm saying to these people, to the student movement in general, that those days are over."
Now the PQ says it favours a tuition freeze. It says it will listen to other opinions at the February summit, including those of the more hardline student groups that want tuition cancelled altogether. However, that group, best known as the CLASSE, suggests it might not attend the summit.
One opposition party says the government has its priorities backward.
"The government needs to do things in order," said Coalition party Leader Francois Legault.
"It should start by recognizing university under-funding and establish where it stands before debating solutions. If this government doesn't recognize that our universities lack money, how can we trust that its summit will bring solutions to improve higher education?
The government refuses to stare reality in the face and its stubbornness risks propelling us toward a summit of illusions."
-With files from Patrice Bergeron in Quebec City and Melanie Marquis in Montreal