The ongoing debate about the feasibility of Quebec's CEGEP system heated up in Sherbrooke Saturday.

The Quebec Liberal Party Youth Wing is holding its annual two-day convention there, where more than 400 young people were on hand to takes part in votes, inclusing the one that came out in favour of scrapping the province's 48 colleges.

The youth wing’s vote goes against the position of its own party leader, Premier Philippe Couillard, who was at the event to meet his young supporters.

Considered the kickoff of the political season, the convention has a bold agenda that also includes eliminating the SAQ, broadening immigration, and even increasing speed limits.

Nothing generated more debate, however, than their motion to abolish the province's CEGEPs, a decision partly based on the assertion the schools aren't meeting job market needs, said Nicolas Perrino, the youth wing’s president.

“We want to talk about CEGEP. We want to talk about reforming Quebec's technical schools. We want to build large and prestigious institutions to keep the youth of Quebec in the regions,” he said.

The young Liberals’ motion proposes an extra year of high school and university instead.

It's not the first time the idea has been up for debate – especially since Quebec's university graduation rate is below the national average.

Still, there is strong opposition to scrapping Quebec's unique educational system.

“They want to remove the general formation of the CEGEP institution to respond to the needs of employers and I think that's not the way to go,” said Leo Bureau-Blouin, president of the PQ Youth Wing.

He is calling on Education Minister Yves Bolduc to condemn Saturday's vote.

The motion narrowly passed, even requiring a recount, with a large portion of the Liberal Party still in support of the CEGEP system.

Couillard is among them.

The role of the education system “is to prepare young people for employment, but also to offer them a pretty solid general culture,” said the premier, adding that he would not change his mind on the issue.

Couillard conceded, however, that reform may be needed to better align college training to the needs of the labour market.

“It's part of the job of the education system to have a (more adequate system) between what is offered as training and what jobs are available,” he said.

Given that the government faces making $3 billion in spending cuts this fall to balance the budget, nothing is off the table, said political analyst Jean Lapierre.

“The three areas where there's a lot of money being spent are education, health and family. Obviously CEGEPs are going to have to be reviewed and this is one of the propositions that is interesting,” he said. “I guess there will be many more discussions, but status quo isn't an option in any of the programs right now.”

Other issues on the table

Young Liberals also want to review the current welfare system, and replace it with a guaranteed minimum income program to encourage more welfare recipients capable of working at a job.
The system of selecting candidates for immigration should also become “more efficient,” they said, adding the government should pay less attention to the knowledge of the French language.

Premier Couillard also nipped that idea in the bud.

“The priority is to have people who are immediately employable in Quebec and who either know French when they arrive, and it is increasingly the case, or they are enrolled in a rapid Francisation program,” he said.

By the end of the weekend, young activists will also decide on other issues, including a proposal to raise the speed limit on highways to 120 km/h from 100 km/h.
They will also vote on a resolution advocating the privatization of the SAQ.

The premier has also weighed in on this issue, saying it is “not a short-term solution.”

With files from La Presse Canadienne