Provincial election candidates debate university funding, Charter of Values

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The proposed Charter of Values and international student policies were at the forefront of a provincial elections debate hosted by the Post-Graduate Students’ Society of McGill University (PGSS) on March 25.

The debate featured representatives from the Parti Québécois (PQ), the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), the Parti Libéral du Québec (PLQ), and Québec Solidaire (QS).

QS representative Molly Alexander emphasized that mitigating student debt and impeding private sector influence is an objective for her party.

“We wish to improve the financial assistance programs, [which means] a gradual conversion of loans to grants to help relieve the burden of debt on students,” she said. “[We’re] reviewing the criteria for financial assistance and making it easier for students to qualify.”

Liberal candidate Geoffrey Kelly criticized the current PQ government’s cuts to research funding at the university level.

“The current government announced a $250 million cut over two years, which was announced as temporary [but] those cutbacks are now permanent,” he said. “In addition, the government cut funding to research by $60 million last year, then put $6 million back and said, ‘Aren’t we generous?’ Those cutbacks mean that new funding [and] new programs are set aside, which has a direct impact on the post-graduate researchers and other people we can attract to Montreal or McGill.”

In response, PQ candidate Evelyne Abitbol referenced her party’s actions as a response to the Liberal government’s proposed university tuition increases in 2012.

“Under the Liberal government, Quebec lived the worst social crisis in recent history,” she said. “The Liberals wanted to impose an […] increase in tuition fees. Since we formed the government, we abolished the abusive increase in fees, and the higher education summit allowed [us] to re-establish the dialogue, and to settle down the social crisis.”

The representatives also discussed their parties’ policies on international students, in light of the deregulation of six additional programs by 2015: administration, computer science, engineering, law, mathematics, and pure sciences.

All candidates agreed on the importance of international students in Quebec, but defended the fee increase and stated the difficulty in balancing the benefits of international students with the costs of hosting them.

“The tuition fees, even with the increases, compare very favourably to other industrial countries,” CAQ Candidate Joseph Dydzak said. “Quebec taxpayers subsidize [foreign students] to the tune of $318 million. On the other hand, the international students bring over $8 billion to the Canadian economy. So we have to balance the tuition fees with the social and economic advantages of having international students here.”

The debate also touched upon the PQs’ proposed Quebec Charter of Values and its controversial limitations on civil servants’ ability to wear religious symbols.

Abitbol defended her party’s policy.

“Students should not fear the charter,” she said. “They are not touched by the proposed measures [….] Students would be able to act as they would the day before.”

Alexander, however, argued the charter did in fact have an effect on students.

“The problem is that [the charter] will not affect [students] in university; it will affect them when they try and get a job in public service,” she said.

Secretary-General of the PGSS Jonathan Mooney said he felt the event was a success.

“I thought there was some very intense debate about the Charter of Values,” said Mooney. “I was very happy that the [PQ] sent a candidate to discuss that here with the anglophone students. I’m really pleased that we were able to see that debate go forward. I was also glad we were able to raise some issues relevant to McGill about international students and about the tuition paid and health coverage of international students.”

The provincial election will take place on April 7.