PQ premier Pauline Marois has finally announced the scheduling of her much ballyhooed summit on the future of higher education.

In a press conference yesterday, flanked by Education Minister Pierre Duchesne and former FECQ President, now MNA, Leo Bureau-Blouin, she promised a kinder, gentler approach than the iron fist approach of her predecessor. 

The summit itself will take place in mid-February, with preparatory meetings and consultations starting at the end of November. 

In this supposed spirit of openness, the PQ continue to promise that “nothing will be off the table,” while simultaneously making clear that the concept of free education is most certainly off the table.

In order to ensure “constructive debate”, the summit will be preceded by a long period of reflection and consultation on four central themes: quality of teaching, accessibility and participation, governance and financing of universities and the contribution of research institutions to the development of Quebec. 

Former ASSE executive Keena Gregoire told rabble.ca that he “wouldn’t be surprised if the PQ accept a tuition freeze, because they have little to gain from fighting for indexation. But for me the more troublesome aspect is the attempt to impose ‘quality control’ and further commodify education.”

Eric Martin, a CEGEP professor and researcher with Quebec think tank IRIS, identifies what the PQ are proposing as part of a global move to marketize higher education, and judge and fund it on its economic benefit, rather than its educational benefit. 

“They talk about quality, but in fact what they are interested in is value added job training and building a market mechanism based on price and quality control, just as in other branches of industry. This can only destroy the mission of universities and replace culture with capitalist priorities.”

Despite the success of the student strike, and the perceived victory of a PQ government, the philosophical idea of accessible and independent academic institutions remains under threat in Quebec. 

As both Martin and Gregoire point out, this shift will squeeze out programs like arts and humanities which are perceived to provide a lower economic benefit than programs such as business and engineering. 

This will lead to a massive shift in our very understanding of higher education, one which is already underway. For the first time this year, we saw a strike delegitimized as a “boycott,” a redefinition dependent on the idea of the student as a consumer with an individual right to education, rather than a member of a student body, or body politic. 

This is the austerity agenda for higher education, and resisting it is critical to defeating the larger neo-liberal project.