Quebec premier Jean Charest speaks at the provincial Liberal general congress, Sunday, May 6, 2012, in Victoriaville.
Credits: ÉRIC BEAUPRÉ/QMI AGENCY
MONTREAL - Despite the agreement between student leaders and the provincial government, neither the tuition crisis nor the student strike are over.
Both sides have claimed partial victories as the government maintained its planned hike and students received a partial freeze - and may not have to pay a tuition increase at all.
However, individual student associations still need to vote on the agreement in the coming days.
Moreover, the deal hinges on whether millions of dollars of savings can be found in existing university budgets to offset the planned tuition increase, which is now scheduled to begin in January 2013.
The agreement signed Saturday evening freezes tuition until December at the earliest. The government pledged to create a "provisional council," which will include student leaders, university presidents, union heads and business leaders, who will be tasked with finding ways to cut existing university budgets.
The money saved will go towards defraying the cost of university ancillary fees, which are fees that universities and colleges charge in addition to tuition.
Student leaders said the goal of the council is to find $127 per full-time student, per semester at each university to offset the tuition increase, which is set to jump by the same amount for the next seven years. Therefore, the increase is maintained, yet the total cost per student stays the same.
Under the terms of the agreement, the so-called provisional council is expected to submit its report on cost efficiencies to the provincial government by December.
If the council cannot make the deadline, the deal stipulates that the freeze will be extended for the winter semester.
Education Minister Line Beauchamp said students will now have to prove that enough money can be cut from university budgets to make up for the tuition increase.
Leo Bureau-Blouin, spokesman for the federation that represents college students, said the money will be found.
"The bet we're making is that it's possible to find millions of dollars from university ancillary fees which will compensate for tuition costs," he said.
That will be a difficult task, according to a well-placed source from Concordia University, who spoke to QMI Agency on condition of anonymity.
The source said that at Concordia in particular, close to 80% of the school budget is earmarked for salaries. Many of those employees are unionized and therefore a pay cut is not negotiable, the source said.
The source added that students will find that there is very little room to cut from university budgets.
"(Student leaders) say that all these university fat cats, the upper administrators, are travelling all over the world," the source said. "Well, fine, cut our travel budgets. On an ongoing basis, that's going to save very little."
However, student leaders maintain that recent financial scandals at Quebec universities prove that money is being wasted.
For example, Concordia was fined $2 million by the provincial government in March for excessive turnover and generous golden parachutes for its school executives.
Another example is the so-called Ilot voyageur scandal, a failed infrastructure project for the Universite de Quebec a Montreal which saddled the provincial government with hundreds of millions in losses.
However, the provisional council might never get to pore over university finances because the deal needs to be accepted by striking student associations across the province.
More than 1,000 people said they were going to protest Sunday night in Montreal against the agreement. Spokespeople for the three main student federations said they were only going to "explain" the agreement to their constituents, not recommend it.
Quebec Premier Jean Charest, however, does recommend students accept the agreement. He told QMI Agency that "everyone comes out of this a winner."
The agreement came after 22 hours of marathon negotiations between the government and student leaders.
If accepted by student associations, the agreement will put an end to the student strike, which lasted over 80 days. Hundreds of protests - often violent - occurred in cities across the province.
The last major protest was Friday evening in Victoriaville, QC, where more than 100 people were arrested and two young men were critically injured.
Students are expected to vote on the agreement throughout the week.