Quebec higher education summit gets underway Monday

Several groups laid out their plans for the Quebec government's long anticipated higher education summit, which gets underway on Monday.

Fifteen groups invited to the summit will be sharing their ideas about how to solve long-standing issues plaguing higher education.

On Sunday, the Quebec University Student Federation (FEUQ) – a key player in last spring's student crisis -- and the Parti Québécois' youth wing outlined their agendas for the higher education summit.

At a joint news conference, the two groups said they will be trying to find solutions to counter student debt.

Martine Desjardins, the FEUQ's president, said reducing student debt is one of the key items on the federation's wish list because it helps improve students' living conditions and opens access to education.

"There's a lot of problems with the financial program. They will be the next workers for the future of the society," she said. "We need to make sure that ... their debt are the lowest [when they] come out with their degree in hand."

About 350 people will be taking part in the meetings.

A group of people representing 46 organizations is criticizing the PQ for the way it organized the meetings and says the summit's agenda is unlikely to yield positive results.

The collective of groups against tuition increases voiced its opposition to this week's summit on higher education during a news conference at the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM) on Sunday.

The group represents women's rights advocates, political groups, nurses and anti-capitalist groups among others.

Diane Lamoureux, who represents a group of professors against the tuition hike, said the summit is not inclusive enough.

She also said the summit will be too short to yield constructive debates.

"We want discussion about [the results] of superior education. You can't discuss the [the results] in a very short format when everyone has three minutes to make [their] point and where there is no debate," said Lamoureux.

She added that Quebec needs to have a public discourse on education where anybody interested in the issues can voice their opinions.

Students at anglophone colleges say they are being left out of the summit meetings because they are not part of larger umbrella associations like the FEUQ or the Quebec College Student Federation (FECQ).

The Coalition of Anglophone CEGEPs, which represents some of the anglophone colleges, is not recognized as a federation or umbrella union and was not invited to attend the summit.

Morgan Crockett, the Dawson Student Union's director of internal affairs and advocacy, said the voice of anglophone students will not be heard at the meeting.

"There are about 10,500 Dawson students — 8,000 full time, 2,500 part time — and that just means they won't be represented at the summit. But there was never a chance for them to be because the [Parti Québécois] never invited any anglophone CEGEPs," she said.

Crockett said the Dawson Student Union had sent a letter to the government asking for a formal invitation to the higher education summit but never heard back from it.

She said the union then decided to boycott the summit.

Crockett said students at Dawson opted not to join the FECQ or the more militant ASSÉ because they don't "meet with their needs."

"We can tell by the past student strikes that even though we might have the same opinions, sometimes we don't always have the same way as francophone students of reacting to the propositions of the government," said Crockett. "We might see negotiations as the way to go, and if we're not going to be there at the summit, where are anglophones going to be represented?"

The PQ government said it opened up extra spaces for independent student groups, but they were awarded through a draw because there isn't enough room for everyone to attend.

Higher Education Minister Pierre Duchesne said it was up to the student organizations that were not invited to find a way to attend the summit.

"Regarding the part of the people around the big table, the national associations are responsible to speak with the other organizations and to share the place they have," he said.

Some of the students groups said they didn't apply to be included in the draw because they did not know it was taking place until after registration closed.

Justin Hunt, the president of the Champlain College Student Association said the summit will lack an important voice.

"It's disappointing because if you're going to organize a summit that's supposed to talk about higher education in the entire province — but you're missing a huge player in that — which is the English CEGEPs, how can they call it a democracy if there's a whole group of students that aren't even included in that?" he said.

The Champlain and Vanier college student associations said they will follow the summit from the outside.

The more militant student group ASSÉ turned down the PQ's invitation to join the meetings, because the party has rulled out free tuition as a solution to alleviating student dept.

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