Quebec offers to stretch tuition hike over 7 years

The Quebec government says it will stretch its $1,625 hike in tuition over a longer period of time in an attempt to come to an agreement with disgruntled students and end protests that have resulted in clashes with police.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest and Education Minister Line Beauchamp outlined the government's offer to student groups Friday morning in a news conference in Quebec City.

"I want Quebecers to know that our government made a real effort," Charest said, adding that the student leaders now involved in negotiations were the same ones who walked away from talks in 2010.

"We never took a dogmatic view on this and we are going to arrive [at] a result where we are going to substantially increase the financing of our universities and we're going to support our students."

The government's proposal includes:

- Spreading the tuition increase over seven years instead of five.

- Adding $39 million in bursaries.

- Linking loan payback schedules to income after graduation.

- Creating a special council to oversee management of universities.

- Periodically evaluating the effect tuition increases are having on students.

Several of those proposals were announced by the government earlier in April.

Hike still a large burden, student group says

Student groups were quick to respond to the government's proposals.

The group representing Quebec college students said the offers themselves aren't bad, but ultimately they won't save students money. The FEUQ said it will take a lot more than the offer on the table to get students back to school on Monday.

The leader of the FECQ, province's CEGEP student group, said the new plan changes little.

"I think that today Mr. Charest was not talking to students, he was talking to Quebec's population trying to convince them that he wanted to solve the crisis, but he still refuses to talk about the amount of tuition fee — it's still a 75 per cent tuition hike," said Leo Bureau-Blouin.

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, spokeswoman for Quebec's largest student group CLASSE, said the offer is not really an offer at all.

"I think it's probably closer of an insult than an offer because Mr. Charest was at a very arrogant tone. He was telling the students to go back in class, that his offer was reasonable," he said.

Both Bureau-Blouin and Nadeau-Dubois said they will bring the offer to their members and let them vote on it, even as protests continued across the province.

At least six demonstrations were planned in the province on Friday, including one in Quebec City that ended with several dozen arrests.

Some students launched a seventh protest in Montreal Friday night that was entitled: "It's not an offer, it's an insult!"

"Nothing new under the sun, more contempt," said the protest advisory on a student website.

"We won't let ourselves be taken for fools too much longer … This is not a solution, it's an insult. NO to the increase. NO to privatization of education. Together, let's block this deal-at-a-discount."

It was a familiar scene as police cornered a group of protesters at a downtown intersection. In return some protesters tossed bottles and projectiles at officers. There was at least one arrest reported.

Negotiations halt

Both the FECQ and the FEUQ offered to come back to the negotiation table Friday along with two members from CLASSE, but the government rejected the idea.

Talks among the three groups and the province broke off Wednesday after the government evicted CLASSE from the negotiations. CLASSE said Friday it will present the government's latest offer to its members early next week.However, the group's spokesperson said, it doesn't address student demands and the hike will still mean a large burden for them.

Charest and Beauchamp stressed that, after tax credits, the seven-year implementation of the increase would amount to about 50 cents a day for most students.

"Honestly, my position is the following: I don't believe that 50 cents a day should compromise [their chances] of getting diplomas this spring," Beauchamp said.

Students have been taking to the streets in protest of the province's planned tuition hikes for more than 11 weeks. They say the demonstrations will continue until the government sits down at the negotiating table or an agreement is reached.

It's still not clear when that will happen.

Charest denied that the offer represented a softening of its position to hold firm against the pressure of student protests, some of which have turned violent and ended in mass arrests.

"We said from the beginning that we would listen, we would work, we would sit down and examine the whole framework of polices with regards to post-secondary education," he said.

"We are maintaining the increase in tuition fees. It's $1,625. It's over seven years instead of five."

With files from The Canadian Press