News | Student movement splintered over underfunding from province

The once monolithic Quebec student movement has split over yet another million-dollar question this fall, pulling McGill graduates and undergraduates in different political directions

The two biggest student lobbying organizations in Quebec, the Federation etudiant universitaire de Quebec (FEUQ) and the Quebec Students Roundtable (QSR), the english acronym of TaCEQ, are taking drastically different approaches to the estimated $500-million funding shortfall currently facing Quebec universities. The catch, for McGill students, is that PGSS belongs to FEUQ, and SSMU is a founding member of QSR.

Beginning in mid-August, as university administrators faced the National Assembly’s Commission de la culture et de l’education, FEUQ began a contentious campaign to reassess what is ailing Quebec universities, and what is putting such a deep dent in their bottom lines.

The federation, which represents 115,000 students across Quebec, decided that the problem was not a lack of government funding to universities, but rather what the universities do with the funding they receive. On August 16, FEUQ launched a website detailing what they perceive to be the waste and mismanagement of university budgets by their administrations.

The site singles out McGill principal Heather Munroe-Blum’s 2008 salary, some $587,000, for particular scorn. FEUQ also goes after building expenses at UQAM, interest payments at Concordia, and the external affairs budget of Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières.

Louis-Phillip Savoie, FEUQ President, was quoted as saying in a French press release dated August 23, “Before reinvesting in universities, can we make sure that money from taxpayers and students is used efficiently[?]”

FEUQ’s solution, as of September 9, was to suggest the provincial government keep a closer eye on universities’ books. The federation proposed that a commission was needed to evaluate the way universities were spending their public funding. Savoie told The Daily that the “new formula to make sure university administrations are more transparent” will be applied by the provincial government, independently from the ministry of education.

He said concerns about government underfunding were beside the point: “It’s not an objective to attain a higher level of financing. What is an objective is to attain a higher level of quality in our university education.”

Acknowledging that Quebec universities receive less provincial funding, proportionally, than universities in other provinces, Savoie said, “It is a comparative underfinancing: that basically doesn’t say anything that seems relevant to the financing of Quebec universities.”

QSR sees things differently. Myriam Zaidi, SSMU VP External and a board member of QSR, which represents about 65,000 students in Quebec, calls the underfunding of the province’s universities a “crisis.”

“As much as money is sometimes not managed the way we would want it to be, clearly university administrations are not wasting $400 or $500 million a year,” she said in an interview. “The FEUQ is just looking at these small instances where there was a mismanagement of money.”

Joël Pedneault, vice-secretary general of QSR and former SSMU councillor, placed special emphasis on his association’s opposition to provincial involvement in the internal management of universities.

“It’s been a clash,” he told The Daily, “between FEUQ, who supports the idea of having a law to give a framework to universities…and people who are against the government legislating in any way about how the universities should function.” He included QSR in the second group.

Zaidi also worried that FEUQ’s campaign against the internal mismanagement of funding was detracting from the federation’s focus on fighting tuition increases.

“Going into this different kind of campaign seems to be an easy way out,” she said. Fighting tuition hikes is a hard battle, especially now, when “students are demobilized,” she continued.

In fact, it is a battle that FEUQ takes part in. The federation released a press release Friday denouncing tuition increases. The same day, Savoie reaffirmed FEUQ’s commitment to stopping the provincial government’s current policy of increasing tuition fees $50 a semester for five years beginning in 2007, saying, “We believe that current policy is ill-advised and should be stopped in 2012.”

The provincial government and FEUQ do agree on the issue of university mismanagement of government funding, however. In her first press conference as Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir, et du Sport (MELS), Line Beauchamp echoed FEUQ’s more than month-old refrain, saying she would look into whether “the public money given to universities [is] used appropriately for the success of university students.”

QSR’s position on government funding, meanwhile, closely resembles the McGill administration’s. Both frequently use the same figure – $500 million – to describe the provincial funding shortfall facing Quebec universities. Both the administration and QSR believe more funding is required from the government.

McGill’s Provost, Anthony Masi, countered FEUQ’s accusations of university mismanagement, saying, “Often when groups or individuals make accusations and assertions without providing evidence regarding financial mismanagement it represents a politically immature tactic and a rhetorical device in order to try to deviate the discourse away from the real point: Quebec universities, and especially the research-intensive ones, are underfunded.”

Max Silverman, who was SSMU VP External when SSMU defederated from FEUQ in 2006, sees other reasons for FEUQ’s new strategy. “It’s an organization that’s really struggling to keep itself relevant in any way,” Silverman said of the federation.

“When I started out in all this, they were the only voice in the mainstream media representing students,” he continued. “And now generally when there’s an article in the Quebec media about student issues, ASSÉ [another lobying group largely comprising CEGEPs] speaks, TaCEQ speaks and FEUQ speaks. So I think they’re to some extent trying to corner a market by saying, ‘We’re not only talking about fees, let’s talk about mismanagement.’ To me it just seems like a marketing strategy, to some extent.”

Silverman also said it was “worrisome,” that FEUQ would choose a lobbying strategy that did not focus on returning to Quebec’s pre-2007 freeze on tuition fees. “The government’s going to try to cling to anything that distracts from that issue,” he said.

Zaidi says she met with PGSS VP External Ryan Hughes recently to discuss FEUQ’s strategy. “I voiced my concern with their current campaign …. Instead of saying ‘There is clearly an underfunding crisis’ and instead of fighting for more government funding for universities, they are saying ‘universities don’t know how to manage their money.’ That is really dangerous ‘cause it can just push the government to bring a new kind of governance bill,” she said.

Legislation that would have mandated external representation on universities’ Boards of Governors – Bills 38 and 44 – was scrapped earlier this year after widespread student protest.

Zaidi went on to say, “I don’t know if [PGSS is] going to go for this FEUQ campaign.”

In an email to The Daily, Hughes confirmed that he stands behind FEUQ’s campaign to focus on the mismanagement of funding by university administrations. “The external policy of the FEUQ is a representation of the will of the individual members,” he wrote.

“The PGSS has direct involvement in the formulation and application of that external policy. If the PGSS were to have disagreements with the FEUQ, then we would be disagreeing with our own contribution to that process and the will of the majority of the members.”

Despite Zaidi’s reference to a meeting on the subject, Hughes wrote in an email Friday, “Unfortunately, I’m not familiar with QSR’s priorities or the nature of their disagreement with the FEUQ.”

Zaidi maintains that she and Hughes have a good working relationship and meet frequently.

QSR and FEUQ, however, have “sparse” relations, according to Pedneault. He said the organizations met on July 27, although Savoie says he was not there.

Asked why QSR and FEUQ, the two largest student lobbying groups in Quebec, had so little contact, Savoie said, “It just happens that way. I don’t have any more comments regarding that.”