How students stopped the governance bills

Bills 38 and 44 caused a ruckus in the fall, but were abandoned after widespread protest

One of the biggest issues for Quebec students this year has been the debate surrounding Bills 38 and 44 and the matter of university governance. The bills – which deal with university and CEGEP governance respectively – would have required Boards of Governors (BoG) in Quebec’s postsecondary institutions to maintain 60 per cent external representation for universities, and 65 per cent for CEGEPs. External representation would be at the expense of internal, locally elected governors like professors, administrators, and students.

Presented in spring 2009, the bills were met with widespread opposition from all levels of the postsecondary education system. Last summer, the ministry of education held a series of public hearings to gauge public enthusiasm for the bills.

“Everyone was against it,” said SSMU legal and political affairs coordinator Boris Savoie-Doyer. “They took a shellacking. We challenged them to produce anything that supported [their theories]. They got destroyed.”

Opponents of the bills argue that the logic supporting them is  a naive perception of the values of external BoG members.

“It was a very ideological point of view on how [external] governors would act,” said SSMU VP (External) Sebastian Ronderos-Morgan. “The logic is that external governors have more interest in the financial well-being of an organization. [Often] they don’t really care.”

In October, roughly 500 students from universities and CEGEPs all over Quebec took to the streets of Montreal to voice their anger about what they saw as the privatization of university governance. The protest was organized by Association pour un solidarité syndicale étudiante, and drew support from the Fédération québécoise des professeures et professeurs d’université, Fédération nationale des enseignantes et des enseignants du Québec, and the Table de concertation étudiante du Québec.

Savoie-Doyer said that the government didn’t expect such an immediate and widespread outcry.

“They thought it would be technical, that no one would pay attention [to the bills]. It was the opposite,” said Savoie-Doyer.

Bills 38 and 44 were derived from the earlier Bill 107, written in the fall of 2008. That bill resulted from a provincial audit of the finances of Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) in what came to be known as the UQAM real estate fiasco. In 2005, the university was faced with a massive space deficit and former rector Roch Denis’s solution was to embark on a risky and ambitious public/private development project to build two new buildings. The project left the university $400 million in debt, enough to significantly weaken UQAM’s reputation and merit a huge government bailout.

Ronderos-Morgan criticized the provincial government’s response to the real estate fiasco. “[The auditor general] really stepped out of bounds of what an auditor should do,” said Ronderos-Morgan, who instead emphasized the specific rector’s role in the fiasco. “Denis managed to manipulate the Board of Governors.”

Despite the outcry earlier this year from student groups across the province, the bills could still be revived. Earlier amendments proposed by minister of education Michelle Courchesne were dismissed by the opposition, but it is possible that further amendments could be made. Revised versions of Bills 38 and 44 could be presented as early as the next parliamentary session in September.

“As far as we know now [the bills] aren’t dead in the water,” said Ronderos-Morgan. “But the bills are fundamentally flawed; no amount of amendments could make them worthwhile.”

Savoie-Doyer said that nothing substantial was likely to be amended; at least nothing that would sway the coalition of protesters against the bills. He did not rule out their return, however.

“I’m sure it will rear its usual ugly head,” said Savoie-Doyer.