News  Student groups gearing up to fight CEGEP fees

Provincial government plans to charge students for public education

CEGEP students across the province could witness a sea of change in access to public education, after the Liberal Party of Quebec recently proposed to introduce tuition fees in an effort to address these underfunded programs.

Quebec currently faces a $3.9 billion deficit, and introducing tuition is just one strategy intended to help get Quebec out of the red by the 2013-2014 fiscal year. Finance Minister Raymond Bachard proposed the plan on September 26 at the Liberal Party’s pre-budget briefing.

The prospective fee has elicited a strong reaction from several student groups. Public CEGEPs were introduced in 1967 and provide cost-free education to approximately 170,000 students across the province.

The provincial government currently provides 90 per cent of the funding for public CEGEPs. Quebec students who want to pursue post-secondary education must attend CEGEP in order to qualify.

Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec (FECQ) President, Xavier Lefebvre-Boucher, argued that the government is damaging their long term interests as Quebec risks losing its position as the province with the highest proportion of students enrolled in post-secondary programs.

“This tuition would hurt accessibility,” Lefebvre-Boucher said, indicating that many 16- and 17-year-old students would not be able to afford the proposed fees. “We can’t afford to decrease the number of graduates in Quebec.”

The idea of students paying for their first year of CEGEP – the equivalent of Grade 12 in other provinces – is worrying to some who feel it shows a government neglect of public education and training.

Christopher Monette, Executive Secretary of the Dawson Student Union, which represents over 7,500 anglophone CEGEP students, echoed this sentiment.

“[Quebec] is a leader in terms of accessible education, and we shouldn’t be jeopardizing this for a quick fix to the deficit,” Monette said.

Despite the flurry of opposition from CEGEPs and faculty-level associations, it is unlikely that tuition fees will be instituted anytime soon. Not even a bill yet, the proposal will have to undergo the slow process of public consultations before its introduction to the Quebec National Assembly.

There is also a concern among students that education is no longer seen as a provincial priority. A series of tuition hikes or deregulation measures in the past years point to rising barriers to accessible education in the province. However, Catherine Poulin, Press Secretary for the Quebec Ministry of Finance has denied that there is a hidden agenda behind the government’s approach to education issues. Poulin stated that public consultations on CEGEP tuition and other budget items may be held as early as November.

CEGEP student groups may soon find themselves in a battle with the provincial government to ensure that students do not have to pay for their education out of their own pockets. Recent protests by students associations against Bills 38 and 44 – which would drastically alter the governing structure of CEGEPs and universities across Quebec – are indicative of broad-based discontent with the Liberal Party’s approach to post-secondary education.

The FECQ and other organizations are currently demanding that the Liberals release a public statement on whether they will introduce their proposal as a bill. Monette and others have said that they are prepared to actively defend their interests if the Liberals do decide to move on this.

“I’m an optimist,” Monette said. “I think that the CEGEP student unions are going to [conduct] a good fight, and I do believe that sooner or later we’ll get the message through.”