Deal will see students get a crack at reducing non-tuition costs
MONTREAL - Students will be given a chance to try to whittle-down non-tuition expenses in a deal signed Saturday by student leaders and now awaiting student ratification.
Details of the plan, that would maintain the tuition hikes but allow students more say in other financial management, were made public on Saturday night, a few hours after news of a potential deal first leaked. (See text of agreement in French by clicking here, or read unofficial English translation below).
The government made an offer following marathon talks in Quebec City that lasted 22 hours.
In a press conference Sunday afternoon Premier Jean Charest revealed that his government made repeated private attempts to invite the students to the negotiating table, notably on April 5, April 15 and April 27.
He said that with the new deal, students will be given the chance to try to reduce non-tuition expenses, such as mandatory association fees and photocopying costs, which cost about $600 to $800 a year.
Charest also threw cold water on speculation that he would call a spring election, vowing to carry on in government hours after reaching a tentative deal with student protesters who were angered by proposed tuition hikes.
Charest said a June election was "not part of the program." He made his comments to reporters after giving a speech at a Liberal convention in Victoriaville.
Mixed reactions to proposal
Reactions were not surprisingly mixed, as many saw the accord in their own way and had their own interpretation of what it means.
"You'll have a lot of spins because the students have to sell it and the government will let them say whatever they want," said Jean Lapierre
Some students were unenthused.
"It all seems like a big lie," said Eric Chalut, who has not attended class in 12 weeks and who would ideally like to see free tuitions.
But another student told CTV Montreal that it's time to ditch the placards and get back to class.
"Maybe if we continue striking the tension will just grow bigger and do we really want someone to lose their life? is it really worth it?" asked Camille Carpentier.
Liberals held line on tuition increases
One political analyst said that the Charest Liberals might have won the battle.
"They held the line on the tuition fee increases and there are no guarantees that the students will make any financial gains out of this deal," said political analyst Don MacPherson.
CAQ leader Francois Legault denounced the deal, which he said would not provide the required added income to the school coffers.
"We have a lose-lose situation. The students are losing, universities are losing and society is losing," said Legault.
Charest was asked repeatedly Sunday why the government didn't manage to settle the conflict earlier.
"It takes two parties to make an agreement," he said. "We can't do it for the students, they have to do it for themselves," he said.
He said that students should now be able to return to class as the soonest possible date.
His Education Minister agreed. "There's an agreement in principle," Line Beauchamp told reporters Saturday. "What makes me most satisfied, under the circumstances, is that students who want to return to class can do it."
Protests expected to continue
Student assemblies indicated that the agreement would require student ratification.
And it wasn't immediately clear if disruptive protests, which have paralyzed downtown Montreal and other cities, would stop.
"This is not the end (of the conflict) -- but it's the beginning of the end," Martine Desjardins, one of the three main student representatives, told The Canadian Press.
The leader of CLASSE, the most militant of the student groups, said as far as he was concerned the boycott is still on, according to CTV Montreal's Cindy Sherwin.
The deal was aided input provided by major union leaders, in the form of union presidents Louis Roy (CSN), Michel Arsenault (QFL) and Réjean Parent (CSQ).
CSN President Louis Roy said he doubted that a deal could be struck, but now that it has been signed, the union is hard at work redesigning a new schedule to make up for lost school time at CEGEPs.
It's possible that classes could be scheduled on weekends and continue into June. More part-time teachers could be hired, if required.
Roy said he has already notified the Treasury Board that saving the semester will require additional funds.
Unions backing students
Political analyst Bruce Hicks told CTV Montreal that he believes that unions threatened to pull the plug on their support for the tuition disturbances unless they could hammer out an accord Saturday.
"I think the students have been pressured by the unions, who have been financially backing them and otherwise, into an agreement," he said.
Some onlookers felt that the situation had put the ball into Premier Charest's court.
"I think the Charest government really thought they could wait it out and a number of things happened," said McGill Professor Will Straw.
"There was a lot of international press coverage of the Maple Spring, that didn't do Charest any favours and with an upcoming election maybe it was time to wrap things up. And seeing nice Quebec students getting beaten, and two of them in a coma, might have encouraged him to pursue a solution."
For more than 80 days, demonstrators have rallied against a tuition hike of $1,625, which would be implemented over several years.
Premier Jean Charest sounded optimistic on Saturday as he spoke of the plan.
"Everyone is relieved that at least we're seeing progress," he said. "The goal is to have students return to class, (so that we can) create room for discussion."
Plan lets government, students save face
CTV's Genevieve Beauchemin gave more details about the plan, which would allow both the students and the government to save face.
While tuition would still rise in technical terms, universities would decrease administration costs and offset those hikes.
The offset will stay in place until the council to analyze university fees is set up.
Beauchemin reported that the plan is a "hidden moratorium."
The Canadian Press reported that the freeze would last till December 2012, and represents a huge concession on the part of the Charest government, despite polls that suggest Quebecers support a hard line against striking students.
Putting the tuition hike on ice would also make it a major election issue, as Charest must call an election by 2013.
Other parts of the deal would create a committee to manage university funds and strengthen loan and bursaries for students.
A day earlier, one protestor lost an eye in violent protests over the province's proposed tuition hikes.
The Charest Liberals are believed to have moved their annual gathering to Victoriaville to avoid students in urban centres, but busloads of demonstrators arrived from cities like Montreal and Quebec City, and quickly clashed with police.
Video images showed demonstrators beating up a provincial police officer, while riot police responded with gas irritants and stun grenades.
There were at least nine injuries – three police officers were seriously injured and taken to hospital, and two of six seriously injured protesters had head injuries, with one in critical condition.
Police arrested at least 106 protesters, in some cases pulling over buses that were leaving the town.
Although crowds and police remained at the convention centre in large numbers Saturday, protesters stayed peacefully behind police barricades, Sherwin reported.
"The crowd is more mellow now," she said.
While news of the tentative agreement had leaked, there was some confusion as the details were not disclosed and some protestors did not know how to react. Some said they would not back down.
Non-student groups also joined the demonstrations, including those protesting the exploration of shale gas in the province, as well as wind turbines, and groups promoting Quebec independence.
Text of the agreement signed Saturday (unofficial translation).
The parties agree on the following:
1-To establish an interim council of universities.
2-The interim council is mandated to make recommendations to the Minister of Education by December 31, 2012 related to its mandate to create a permanent university council, to be created by law. This body will study the appropriateness of including the following topics within the mandate of the permanent council: - The abolition and creation of programs; -Internationalization; -Partnerships between universities and community; -Continuing Education; -The quality of training, research and support; -And university authorities
3– The interim council is mandated to evaluate, in light of best practices, the optimization of university financing and to demonstrate, if possible, how savings could be made available, in this context, to make recommendations to the Minister of Education by December 31 of 3012, relative to the following elements: -The locations of campuses; -Advertising expenses; -Issues related to housing; -Personnel management; -Accountability; -and transfers between funds.
The Minister of Education's budget standards will serve as a tool for this purpose.
4- Recommendations sent to the Minister of Education relating to the optimization of finances mentioned in article three will be used in the autumn of 2012 in the following way: savings thus generated will be applied to the reduction of institutional costs according to terms to be agreed to between the government, student associations, and the Conference of Rectors and Principals of Quebec (CREPUQ). As a temporary measure for the autumn 2012 semester, the payment of a sum of $125 per full-time student will be deferred until the filing of the recommendations to the Education Minister, allowing time to determine the amount generated by the savings.
If the recommendations are not filed before December 31, 2012, the measure could be renewed for the 2012 winter semester.
5-The interim council is composed of the following people: - 6 rectors or representatives designated by the CREPUQ; -4 student representatives nominated by the CLASSE, FECQ, FEUQ and TACEQ; -4 union representatives designated by the CSN, FTQ and FQPPU; -2 representatives of business, designated by the Minister; -1 representative of CEGEPs appointed by the Federation of CEGEPs; -1 representative of the Education Ministry appointed by the Minister; -the Chairman, to be appointed by the Minister.
The interim council may add any person it considers necessary for its work. The interim council shall establish its rules of operation at its first meeting.
6-The recommendations made by the interim council shall be deposited to the Minister by 31 December 2012.
7-Other clauses: The representatives of the federations, roundtables and student associations undertake to refer the agreement-in-principle so it can be submitted for consultation by its members. It shall not undertakes to organize any protest relating to this agreement.
If adopted, this would constitute a framework for ending the crisis and promoting the return to class.
With files from The Canadian Press