June 8, 2012

Part 1: How the Quebec government ripped up the student's proposals and walked away from the negotiating table

This document reprints part one of an assessment and summary of the recent negotiations and has been widely circulated among students in Quebec. An important read also for students outside of Quebec, it shows the clash of ideas that is taking place at the negotiation table and major issues of the strike. Written the CLASSE negotiating committee and typed by Carl Oullette last night, the original text is available in French here and, again in French, in PDF here.  RY magazine apologizes for any errors in our rapid translation. The document has been edited and explanations added. We repeat again that this crisis has been created by the government's intransigence, which is shown in black and white in the comments of Quebec Premier Jean Charest below.  Part two is coming soon.

Student leaders from the three main student centrals speak to the press after negotiations
again broke down with the government yesterday following four days of talks in Quebec City.

Assessment and summary of the CLASSE after four days of negotiations.

by Carl Ouellette 
Thursday, 31 May

The CLASSE returns to Quebec for Round 4

For the fourth time, the CLASS was invited back to the negotiation table. On Thursday we recieved a call from Pierre Pilote to tell us that we would meet again after our Congress. On Sunday we had confirmation that the meeting will be held in Quebec City at 14:00. Monday morning we get on board the Justin-négo-mobile. Direction: Quebec City.


Student centrals -

TaCEQ: Paul-Emile Auger, Etienne Chabot, Sebastien Gagnon, Martin Bonneau
FECQ (Federation of Cegep Students): Philippe Lafrance, Élianne Lafrance [note: it is actually Élianne Laberge, the new president of the FECQ], Félix-Antoine Michaud, Marc-Antoine Cloutier
FEUQ (Federation of University Students): Martine Desjardins [President of FEUQ], Yanick Gregoire, Mathias Bouliane
CLASSE (The Expanded Coalition of ASSÉ): Justin Arcand, Nicolas Lachance Barbeau, Philippe Lapointe, Shanie Morasse

Government -

Education Ministry: Michelle Courchesne [Minister of Education], Jean-Pascal Bernier [Chief of staff of the Minister of Education]
Others: Alain Paquet [Delegate Minister of Finance], Pierre Pilote [negotiator, lawyer and corporate advisor],   and -- Tadam! Jean Charest made an appearance.

Again, due to our many requests, there are two delegates from national organization around the table, the others are in a seperate room, as usual. Michèle Courchesne discussed the rules of operation and timing of this round, she said we had to take the time it takes to get to something positive out of the discussion. The government wants to be given until Wednesday to reassess where we are.

And they also put forward that this is another bargaining blitz, but this time not at night [as the previous round on May 5 did, negotiating through the night and produced the first offer, which was overwhelmingly voted down by the student union membership leading to the previous Minister's resignation, as you can read here, as well as the details of the offer, and how the government was not negotiating in good faith. - RY eds].

Reacting to the media

The discussion began on Monday with the proposals that the media had partially put forward. [The previous day, the front-page headline of La Presse newspaper (Montreal's Toronto Star) said the government was finally bending to the demands of the students - RY]

The FECQ said usually the government is putting forward a proposal and that [...] according to media reports, the government had a proposal. Alain Paquet said she also heard in the media that the students had suggestions. Michele admitted that was prudent of us [...]. However, she said the government has worked hard on its proposal and want's to make a sincere wish find a way to end the strike. The government put forward the difficulty of working with four different associations. May 5 also seems to haunt her, she reiterated that she does not want a repeat of that experience again.

We claim a clear mandate and that following the last negotiation, our mandate was reaffirmed and clarified. The situation is that the students are very motivated, that mobilization in the streets is beyond our scope and we wondered how we could guarantee that an offer will bring the world to a "normal situation".

Leo Bureau-Blouin said he believes that the negotiating table can change things, but we have more pressure because we have lost the session.

To this, Courchesne asked us to bear in mind the date of August 17th, which is the resumption of classes. We explain that expectations are high, the streets of Montreal will not stop to mobilize for an offer that is complex and avoids the real issues; we must talk about rising tuition fees.

Courchesne raises the question of the difficulty of discussing with the CLASSE.

The student Federations (FEUQ and FECQ) suggested that there is room at the table [for an extra chair]. For them, it seems, it is either all the student centrals or nothing. This requires a change in the way we are working and a result or conclusion to the situation is obligatory, a very difficult situation.

The TaCEQ explains that the obligation of a finding a result is particularly important and that right now people will lose confidence in the political process and no longer believe in the negotiations. The FEUQ recalls that the context has changed since May 5: for example, the Law 78, les casseroles, etc..

Enter Jean Charest

It was at this time that Jean Charest entered the room, greeted us, explained that it was the bon timing for frank discussions and he hopes that this will lead to a solution. [Note: Up to this point, Priemier Jean Charest has refused to join in any of the negotiations with the students and his visit was not expected - RY]  He recalled that since the beginning of the conflict the government has made several gestures and he feels no gratitude was expressed for the improvement of student financial aid. Is the strike not around the question of accessibility?

We answer yes, but it is also about [confronting] the doctrine of the commodification of public services and user fees. This is a much larger issue that can not be offset by financial aid.

Jean Charest acknowledges that this is a good question and it is actually a question on which we do not see eye to eye.

[The students replied --] How can we get to a solution? An Estates General [a people's meeting of all elements of Quebec society about education] because the debate goes beyond the people around this room and should include the entire population.

The Premier said that he thinks it is a good idea, his government is open to a broader discussion, and it would offer us the opportunity to present our different views, in a forum, or as an Estates General, which would address the issue after the immediate issues are understood.

The TaCEQ said it was going in the same direction, and said the debate has gone further than the question of students it has become a question for society.

CLASSE also asserted that the overwhelming rejection of the agreement of May 5 was because the negotiating committee conversation represented a preliminary discussion that was much too closed, we want an open debate.

Premier Charest said that he understands that these issues have always been in the air, but that the current environment suggests that an Estates General would reduce the pressure.

An ideological question

FECQ then asks that there be a gesture or movement addressing the problem of tuition. Charest said that for him the issue of costs is the issue of accessibility. The government has taken important steps and he needs to be the satisfied that the people are seen to look at and respond to these steps, in a way that is concrete and measurable, he insisted.

FEUQ said that this approach has brought no benefit to its members and that in fact it's 50,000 students have to deal with increasing debt problems.

So Leo [outgoing president of the FECQ] asks Charest why, if he is willing to invest in loans and grants, he is he not willing to put in more money?

Jean Charest replied that the government believes that its policies are fair, it takes funding to ensure accessibility. (The Government's vision of accessible education regarding tuition is a way to favor the rich. For them, student financial aid must come with a high price -- but somehow I think you already know their view of accessibility, as they have put forward for so many years.)

The discussion comes back to the evaluation of university funding.

Jean Charest says that 80% of university budgets is allocated to salaries, we can of course have a look at accountability [of workers].

Alain Paquet says that he has to put forward the global context in which Québec must be listed. Jean Charest took this opportunity to criticize the PQ and the freezing of tuition in the 90s. Jean Charest says he knows he does not convince us, and the reverse is also true.

Leo [FECQ] asks whether the government has a mandate to discuss fees?

Charest said he can only talk about fees in a less strained or tense moment, that must set the atmosphere at the table. With that he leaves the room.

Back to the table at 5:00pm. 

The negotiations resume as Michele says she wants to proceed with the following agenda:

  • Summit / forum (Synonym of Estates General, in terms of less politically charged)
  • Accessibility 
  • Fees-Michele tells us that she finally has a mandate to discuss tuition! 
So we start talking about the Education Forum to be held in fall 2012. The theme is: What kind of university do we want in Quebec? The objective is to ask the public what it wants. We would speak also of the needs, programs and university funding...

The government said it would, at most, give 2 or 3 months of preparation and would be present as well as:

  • University Students
  • Rectors
  • Professors
  • Researchers
  • The business community
  • Labour
To the CLASSE, this period is too short. The preparation of such a type of event takes a lot longer, especially as we want it to be as inclusive and complete as possible.

Michele seems to agree with our views. We agree to talk about tuition fees and university funding in the forum. When she took the portfolio of funding education she became convinced of the importance of the  Estates General.

Wrap-up for the day

The minister asks if the problem of whether to save money to reduce expenses is still under discussion. We advise him that this solution is too complex and hypothetical for it to resolve the strike.  The student associations said that we should have an overall vision of the offer tonight and be able to immediately discuss tuition.

This offends some of the government delegation who propose that it would be to our advantage to make our comments on other aspects of the proposal first, and thereby the government will be better able to prepare its proposal on fees. [...]

As CLASSE we insist, somewhat, on the idea that financial aid must not be a compensation for the increase and therefore without a discussion on the increase in fees we can not move forward. We recall that accessibility is only part of the issue, as we struggle against rising user fees. As we have said, a tuition freeze is already a compromise for us [because they want free education].

The minister therefore asked whether we would sign an agreement where a freeze is not the agenda: our answer is no.

FECQ advises that if the government do not address the matter of tuition fees tonight, they will take a break until the next day. The FEUQ advises that every hour spent at the table creates expectations and it implies we endorse the process.

We take a break.

Students take a united position

Back from the break, we return with a common line: if you do not present numbers about the tuition increase, we will leave -- pending a discussion (to take place the next day) about where everything is at in the negotiations.

The Minister understands that we did not address the other aspects of her proposal, but this reduces her team's flexibility. Talking about of the other aspects is part of a whole, which completes the offer. She made a speech in defense of the l’Aide financière aux études or student financial aid. Since last week, she has desired an Estates General, and she persuaded the Prime Minister. You must have substantive discussions in a competitive world. With that, we close the meeting with an appointment to start again the next day.

The government then approached us on Tuesday May 29th with a first offer to reduce the increase to $34 and to spend from $254 per year to $220 per year to fund this reduction by reducing tax credits on tuition from 16.5% to 13.5%. The credits were had been, at the beginning of the year, 20%, but had already been reduced to 16.5% to fund the bonus announcement of financial support, so this would represent a second reduction of tax credits.

Tax credits debate

FEUQ suggests to condense all the savings achieved in 7 years by the reduction of tax credits to allow an effective freeze the first year, at no cost to the government. The Federations discuss extensively the principle of condensing the savings in a few years rather than staging it. Spend $254 to $220, cost to run about $29 million in 2017-2018.

Then there is much confusion about the source of $29M and its use. The government seems very confused at the idea they are offering a freeze at zero cost, and this confusion about the use of tax credits allows it to refuse to believe it. They present a simple table and then the government understands. Courchesne then explains that she can not over-rule her team, who must assess the budgetary impact. On the other hand, in the context of a summit, the student contribution will be fully understood.

FECQ reminds the government that fiscally, the student offer has no cost to the State, and is more rational. The government tells us that neither the people nor their government will understand the logic of the process [being presented] here.

FEUQ said that its offer does not even touch the funding of universities. We work only in the Financing Plan forecast. Martine [President of FEUQ] said that doing so would stop speaking of bad funding, which for the students is a back-step [compromise] in itself.

The Minister explained that the Montreal economy is down because of the impact of the strike. Solutions are needed right now, and it is important that we find them, and that the people understand them and are satisfied by the way out of the student strike.

CLASSE replies

CLASSE replied that the supporters of the Minister are not blocking ports, not marching with pots and pans, and are not crippling the economy of Montreal. So it is us who must be satisfied for things to change. For the CLASSE abolishing tax credits to finance a small decrease of the government's increase is not a measure that provides a guarantee to return to school [and end the strike].

Then we addressed the question of  the  Estates General and the Minister assured us that the goal will be to rally the public behind the idea of ​​the Québec university and university funding, and that everything will be on the table.

An economist from the Ministry of Finance, Mia Homchy, next said that the $29 million that comes from cutting the income tax credit will not be there every year. But the FEUQ repeated their position that it will still costs $29M per year, so there is money somewhere. The Department explained that the freeze for two years can not pass, Courchesne can not brûler le terrain, so we take a break.

The supper is over we return to the table. The government se creuse la tête [is scratching their head] and tells us that if we are creative we could achieve our respective aims. It is recalled that the forum of discussion is always a good way and finding common ground takes a long time. (Sometimes in negotiations we often return to the same subject and say the same thing).

The ideological objective is clear, the minister looses their shoe!

Michelle tells us that $ 0 is impossible and that the government's commitment is still over a 7 years period. We try to see how you can play in government, in order not to release a proposal that comes out of nowhere. The FECQ wonders if tax credits are still on the table? The answer is yes, but there is a floor that they will not go below.

Mia tries to explain the calculation of cost of the government to spend $ 245 to $ 220 which is $ 29M. The FEUQ demolished the arguments of Mia and her numbers -- it's nice to watch. It becomes clearer than ever that the government's objective is only to increase the students fees, because it has been demonstrated that the freeze for at least two years was possible.

People become inflamed, Michelle is so angry that she lost her shoe! She tells us that whatever it would take for a year-long freeze [of tuition], politically the government can not, [even thought] our argument is logical and it stands. She thinks we request too much.

The TaCEQ tries to prove that students are making an sizable effort to work in the financing plan put forward by the government. People are trying to prove that they are working in good faith, we are trying to find a solution.

The government asks us whether a freeze of one year would be acceptable. The CLASSE answers that we want tuition costs set at 2007 levels [when the last freeze was lifted and there was a $500 increase], with a freeze of 1 year ... The government tells us it's like a one-year moratorium, the FEUQ replied that we will pays through the tax credits. We take another break.

More technical discussion

After this short break the FEUQ pulls out of his pocket the Quebec Education Savings Incentive ( l’Incitatif Québécois d’Épargne Études QESI). This would allow us to have two years during which there is no increase in fees and the Education Forum would take place and discuss university funding.

The government asks us if what we want is a moratorium of 2 years, the answer is yes says FEUQ. We let them digest this new offering and we agree to meet again the next day, Wednesday.3:30 p.m.

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