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The Conversationalist: Interview With Louis-Phillipe Savoie of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec

Today, December 6, is a big day for Quebec's student movement. Across the province, approximately 60,000 university students are on strike, in protest of discussions about proposed tuition fee hikes at an education summit in Quebec City. Students have also flooded into Quebec to demonstrate outside the meeting. Louis-Phillipe Savoie, of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ), gave Maisonneuve a primer on what is at stake if Quebec's historically low university tuition is raised.


Amelia Schonbek:  Are there concrete plans right now for tuition increases in Quebec?

Louis-Philippe Savoie: Well there is an intention by the government of Quebec to raise tuition fees by 2012. [Tuition is] currently rising at a rate of $100 per year, since 2007 and until 2012. Tuition next year will be at the level of $2168 for a 30-credit [course load]. And the Liberal government has the intention of raising it by an even larger amount in the following years.

AS: Have they named a number?

LPS: There has not yet been a governmental decision on it, however there are a few scenarios that are floating around. Last April, the Quebec Liberal party's general council took the position to raise tuition to the Canadian average, which would mean roughly $5,000 a year. And the Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec (CREPUQ), which is the organization that groups university principals, has taken the position of raising tuition $500 per year for three years, and afterward keep on raising tuition to reach at least the Canadian average, in terms of tuition fees. So those are the major propositions that are on the table now. There is a meeting of education stakeholders that will take place Monday, December 6 in Quebec City and the issue of tuition fees will be part of the discussion that will take place there.

AS: What are the implications of this type of tuition increases?

LPS: It would be disastrous for accessibility to university education. [FEUQ] recently launched a major study on undergraduate students' living conditions, and what it reveals is that in 2009, half of full-time undergraduate students lived on less than $12,200 per year, which is really not a lot. 60 percent of students expect to carry debt by the end of their undergraduate diploma, and the average amount of that debt would be around $14,000. 25 percent of students expect to carry a debt that is over $20,000. So this is basically a portrait of the current situation. And students' living conditions would certainly be worse with a rise in tuition. Many students will be forced out of university studies if such increases in tuition are passed.

AS: Many people are saying that raising tuition is the only way to deal with university underfunding in Quebec. Why isn't raising tuition a useful way to address underfunding?

LPS: First of all, because it would affect accessibility to university studies. We've talked about that. But also because it will have an impact on the quality of education, but not the [impact] you'd expect. You often hear from university principals that if tuition is raised, the quality of education would improve. But that's not the case. Every time tuition has risen, it has corresponded with a significant reduction of the governmental contribution to universities. This is what happened in Quebec, for example, in the early '90s when there was a major tuition hike. This is what happened also in other Canadian provinces. It was going on in Ontario, for example—their tuition is among the highest in Canada, and yet they still face major problems in their post-secondary education system. The ratio between students and teachers is worse than in Quebec.

So basically there is no link between quality of education and rises in tuition fees, especially when you think that to pay their bills, university students would have to work [more] and to take on a lot more debt. This has a concrete and immediate impact on the quality of education. There are only twenty-four hours in a day and seven days in a week. You can't balance twenty or twenty-five hours of work per week with full-time studies without a major impact on the quality of your education.

AS: A couple minutes ago you mentioned the study that FEUQ recently published on Quebec students' living conditions. Could you tell me a bit about the findings?

LPS: Well what we found was basically that students are in a very precarious financial situation. They often live on less than $12,200 a year. The average revenue for full-time students is around $13,300 per year—most students live on a very low income, basically. You've got two-thirds of students who use more than a third of their revenue to pay their housing bills, which is a sign of immense financial precariousness. The living conditions of most students don't fit with the parameters of the student financial aid program. Fifty percent of students spend more on food than what is recommended by the student financial aid program, and that's not because they have fancy tastes. Seven dollars per day is really not a lot to be able to eat in a reasonable fashion.

[As for] student bills, real student bills, with not only tuition, but also everything else associated with studies—ancilliary fees, school materials—we're talking about $3,000 to $3,500 a year to just study at the university. You haven't paid your housing bill, you haven't paid for food—you're just studying and it costs you $3,000 to $3,500 dollars per year. The result is that 61 percent of students expect to be indebted by the end of their studies. Such a huge debt has impacts on Quebec's future. It prevents students from doing many projects in their lives—starting a family, buying a house, starting a new company, for example. All those life projects are [affected] by the debt they have had to take to be able to study for a university degree. So it's not easy being a student in university right now.

What the Quebec government and university principals are trying to right now is decrease the [quality of life] of university students through a very regressive method. What they're trying to do is go back to forty-five years ago, when university studies weren't accessible, when many programs were simply closed to anybody but the richest students. Students will fight back, because accessibility to university studies is a necessity to our society. We need university graduates to pay taxes that will finance our public services for the next thirty or forty years. Raising tuition fees is the worst thing you can do to try and refinance universities. You're taking a student who does not have a lot of money and telling him "pay a lot more, we don't care." This is not sensible policy.

AS: Do you expect any decisions on education policy to come out of the Rencontre des partenaires de l'éducation on December 6?

LPS: We don't expect decisions to be taken there; we've had pretty clear confirmation that no decisions will be taken at the meeting. But it could have a tremendous impact on governmental decisions, which is why we're trying to put as much pressure as possible on the government to make sure they retreat—that they do not go forward with hikes in tuition fees.

AS: Do you have a sense of how many students will be in the streets on December 6? How organized is the student movement around the tuition issue?

LPS: We'll see Monday how many students there are. We hope to have a pretty high turnout. We think students are very mobilized on this issue. However, it's not exactly the best day for a protest. I mean, it's December 6, on a Monday, it's probably going to be snowing, it's in Quebec City... But I think we're going to have pretty good participation, and this meeting will only be the beginning. If the government does not stop, students will keep putting pressure until they go back on their decision to raise tuition fees.

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