Charest extends olive branch of slower tuition hikes

Jean Charest has offered to slightly soften the blow of controversial tuition hikes in a series of proposals with two aims in mind: calming his province’s angry student movement and winning public sympathy for his government.

Jean Charest has offered to slightly soften the blow of controversial tuition hikes in a series of proposals with two aims in mind: calming his province’s angry student movement and winning public sympathy for his government.

The Quebec premier told a news conference Friday he’s willing to phase in the $1,625 increase over seven years — instead of five. His government also wants to index future increases to the rate of inflation, while enriching the loans-and-bursaries program.

It’s unclear whether the offer changes anything. At least six demonstrations were planned in the province on Friday, including one in Quebec City that ended with several dozen arrests.

Some students promptly planned a seventh protest, a late-evening affair in Montreal, entitled: “It’s not an offer, it’s an insult!” Despite the angry initial reaction the proposal was set to be discussed at student assemblies over several days.

On the whole, Friday’s proposed changes would mean that, instead of annual increases of $325 for five years, tuition would rise $254 for seven straight years.

The premier called that a responsible way to keep Quebec’s universities well-funded and competitive — without reaching once again into the pockets of the province’s taxpayers.

As for the tuition freeze being demanded at noisy demonstrations? Speaking directly to Quebecers, Charest said he will not bend.

Reports of the protests have moved beyond Quebec and begun making some international news, with the demonstrations increasingly erupting into contests between window-smashing vandals and police blasting crowds with chemical irritants.

Many students have also been casting their struggle as a broader social cause, using terms like “Quebec Spring” to describe their movement.

“I want to address all Quebecers to tell you: My government will never agree to act, or to concede, under the threat of violence and blackmail,” Charest said.

There appeared to be a two-fold strategy at the news conference hosted by Charest and Education Minister Line Beauchamp outside the premier’s office in Quebec City.

The first was to split the student movement, and isolate its most radical faction from the rest.

The second was to win public sympathy on an issue that could — sooner or later — play a central role in an election campaign. Polls have suggested Quebecers generally support the idea of fee hikes, but they also want to see some compromise.

So, with the dispute into its 11th week, the premier spoke of compromise.

Charest and his minister asked students to take time to discuss and reflect on their offer, without making a knee-jerk reply. They also asked the remaining “striking” students, in the meantime, to go back to class and put an end to their weeks-long walkout.

“For an effort of 50 cents a day, it strikes me that it’s no longer time to compromise their diplomas,” Beauchamp said.

“I’m inviting students to go back to class. Because the solution proposed by the government is fair and equitable.”

Leo Bureau-Blouin, the head of one student federation, said he doesn’t believe Charest’s proposals will end the demonstrations.

“What I’m hearing from students is that it’s not enough to halt the strike,” he said.

“I get the impression it will stimulate the mobilization instead of dampening it as Charest is hoping . . . . I don’t think it’s enough to stop the strike because it doesn’t do anything about reducing tuition fees.”