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Charest makes offer to his province's angry students: Slower tuition hikes

Jean Charest has offered to slightly soften the blow of controversial tuition hikes in a series of proposals with two aims in mind: calming his province’s angry student movement and winning public sympathy for his government.

The Quebec premier told a news conference Friday he’s willing to phase in the $1,625 increase over seven years — instead of five. His government also wants to index future increases to the rate of inflation, while enriching the loans-and-bursaries program.

It’s unclear whether the offer changes anything. At least six demonstrations were planned in the province on Friday, including one in Quebec City that ended with several dozen arrests.

Some students launched a seventh protest in Montreal Friday night that was entitled: “It’s not an offer, it’s an insult!”

“Nothing new under the sun, more contempt,” said the protest advisory on a student website.

“We won’t let ourselves be taken for fools too much longer… This is not a solution, it’s an insult. NO to the increase. NO to privatization of education. Together, let’s block this deal-at-a-discount.”

It was a familiar scene as thousands of protesters swept through Montreal’s downtown. Police cornered a group of them at a downtown intersection. In return some protesters tossed bottles and projectiles at officers. A window was smashed at a Canadian Forces office. There was at least one arrest reported.

On the whole, Friday’s proposed changes would mean that, instead of annual increases of $325 for five years, tuition would rise $254 for seven straight years.

The premier called that a responsible way to keep Quebec’s universities well-funded and competitive — without reaching once again into the pockets of the province’s taxpayers.

As for the tuition freeze being demanded at noisy demonstrations? Speaking directly to Quebecers, Charest said he will not bend.

Reports of the protests have moved beyond Quebec and begun making some international news, with the demonstrations increasingly erupting into contests between window-smashing vandals and police blasting crowds with chemical irritants.

Many students have also been casting their struggle as a broader social cause, using terms like “Quebec Spring” to describe their movement.

“I want to address all Quebecers to tell you: My government will never agree to act, or to concede, under the threat of violence and blackmail,” Charest said.

There appeared to be a two-fold strategy at the news conference hosted by Charest and Education Minister Line Beauchamp outside the premier’s office in Quebec City.

The first was to split the student movement, and isolate its most radical faction from the rest.

The second was to win public sympathy on an issue that could — sooner or later — play a central role in an election campaign. Polls have suggested Quebecers generally support the idea of fee hikes, but they also want to see some compromise.

So, with the dispute into its 11th week, the premier spoke of compromise.

Charest and his minister asked students to take time to discuss and reflect on their offer, without making a knee-jerk reply. They also asked the remaining “striking” students, in the meantime, to go back to class and put an end to their weeks-long walkout.

“For an effort of 50 cents a day, it strikes me that it’s no longer time to compromise their diplomas,” Beauchamp said.

“I’m inviting students to go back to class. Because the solution proposed by the government is fair and equitable.”

And in a message aimed at the broader public, the premier and education minister repeatedly mentioned respect for taxpayers and cast the student cause as much ado over 50 cents per day.

There is some speculation among the Quebec punditry that if the current unrest continues, Charest could call an election and campaign on the issue. He will begin the fifth year of his mandate in late 2012.

The premier has replied testily to questions about whether he might seek to launch a campaign on the issue.

“We’re not there,” Charest said.

He called it “grotesque” that anyone would believe he might cynically use the issue to get re-elected. Polls suggest that his government, which is otherwise deeply unpopular, actually has a fair bit of public support on this issue.