QUEBEC - A memorable debate is shaping up over the principle of zero tuition in Quebec.
The idea of cancelling tuition altogether is not among the options being considered by the Parti Quebecois government, as it struggles to find a university funding formula following a year of unrest.
There's one problem: a former PQ premier, Jacques Parizeau, who is a hero to the party's rank and file, has just gone public with a forceful call for the government to consider the policy.
He notes that free university was always the intention when, back in the 1960s, he was a provincial civil servant and the modern university network was created.
Parizeau's public musings have set up an interesting contest.
The government minister responsible for the file is rookie politician Pierre Duchesne — who in his previous life was a journalist, and who happened to be Parizeau's biographer.
The biographer-versus-subject dynamic comes two weeks before a critical summit.
At that upcoming summit on higher education, the government intends to propose a freeze on tuition followed by small increases indexed to inflation.
That plan falls somewhere between the freeze or reduction which various students activists are demanding, and the significant increases proposed by the former Liberal government which triggered months of protests. A recent poll suggests the PQ idea has strong support.
But Parizeau says he can't understand why the zero-tuition idea has been discarded so quickly.
In an interview with Le Devoir, he says the obsession with balancing the budget next year has made the government incapable of considering other policy options.
It's well known that Quebec is the most heavily indebted province. At the same time, it offers a university education for the lowest rates in the country.
However, proponents of free education say the goal is entirely affordable as demonstrated in other societies that have made it a priority.
For instance, the money collected from student fees in Quebec amounted to $709 million before the 2011 budget in which the Liberals introduced their fee-hike plan.
That sum amounted for barely one per cent of the province's $67 billion budget at the time.
By way of comparison, the province spent about eight times that amount — $5.7 billion — on business subsidies, which critics deride as "corporate welfare," according to figures gathered by the right-leaning Montreal Economic Institute from Statistics Canada in 2008.