Although I’ve wanted to comment on the Quebec students’ strike for a while now, I’ve been holding back to give it some time to see how things play out. Now that the affair has entered full-out circus mode, I feel it’s safe to offer my own two cents.
For those who aren’t so familiar with the situation, here’s the Coles Notes version of it. The Quebec government is deeply in debt, to the tune of more than $180 billion. To try and balance the books, the Quebec government (among other measures) has increased the provincial sales tax, the provincial fuel tax, and property taxes, and is charging people an extra $200 annual premium for health care (essentially an extra tax). The government also announced a few months back that it planned to raise post-secondary tuition fees by 75% over the next five years. A coalition of student groups formed to protest the tuition fee increases, and quickly gained momentum.
With that momentum, the nature of the protests changed. Groups that were either loosely affiliated or completely unaffiliated with the student organizations latched on to the protests, swelling their numbers, but at the same time rendering them much more volatile and confrontational. Mask-wearing young men who most people doubt are students at all have used protests as vehicles to smash windows, throw smoke bombs in subway stations, and otherwise act out. A few well-groomed young dandies have appointed themselves as leaders of the student movement, each no doubt seeing the next Mario Dumont when he looks in the mirror. With each day that passed, the whole affair began to look more like an inverted political hybrid of the US Tea Party & Occupy Wall Street movements, and less and less like something that represents students’ interests. Although polls indicate the majority of the Quebec population does not support the protesters, the week before last the Quebec government decided to negotiate a compromise with the main student organizations, offering to spread the tuition increases out over seven years, and to set up a panel, which would include student representatives, to search for ways to make post-secondary institutions more efficient, with any savings to go toward offsetting tuitions. The student groups polled their memberships and most have rejected the government’s offer. The government education minister has now resigned, and the circus is now on in earnest.
In all the media attention being given to this event, there are a few things that are not being discussed that warrant further reflection. Bear in mind when reading the following comments that I do not live or teach in Quebec, although some of my students are Quebecers. My observations are those of an informed person looking across his neighbour’s fence (or in this case, across the river, where student protests have shut down the Univeristé de Québec Outaouais a couple times).
First, let’s consider the substance of the matter – tuition fees. Most people are by now aware that Quebec has the lowest tuition fees in North America. In Quebec, tuition fees are measured in the hundreds of dollars, whilst in other provinces they’re measured in the thousands, and at many US schools, in the tens of thousands. This has been explained by a number of Quebec intellectuals as being the result of a sort of social contract struck >40 years ago in the wake of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution. Long after higher education became widely accessible in the rest of North America, in Quebec it had remained disproportionately reserved for Anglophones and privileged Francophones. A succession of reform-minded Quebec governments made it an unofficial policy to keep tuitions fees low while expanding the number of post-secondary schools and spaces within them, so as to make higher education accessible. Low tuition fees have now become a political sacred cow and a middle-class entitlement.
Even with the proposed increase in tuition fees, Quebec’s would still be the lowest in North America. Many commentators in the English-language media have seized on this point, and use it to portray Quebec as a spoiled, spendthrift province. I was not entirely surprised students protested the tuition fee increases; regardless of the baseline, a 75% increase is substantial. Gas is cheap in Canada as compared with Europe; were the federal government proposed to raise its tax on gasoline by 75%, our gas would still be cheaper than in Europe. But can you imagine the outcry from our nation of suburban SUV-drivers if the government actually tried to do it? No one would care what Europeans might think – cheap gasoline is a middle-class Canadian entitlement. So let’s not beat up on the Quebec students for making a fuss – be surprised if they didn’t.
My concern is more with the cheap-tuition entitlement itself. In a recent Globe and Mail column, Jeffrey Simpson noted that only 1/3 of Quebec kids go to university today while in Ontario, where tuition fees are much higher, over 40% do. Average household incomes in Quebec are not substantially different from Ontario, so it would seem that tuition fees are not the main barrier to post-secondary education in Quebec. There is more to it than just this, however. In Ontario, a student’s tuition fees make up almost ½ of the actual cost of their education. This seems to me a reasonable share. Society as a whole benefits from having a well-educated workforce, and study after study shows that individuals with a higher education earn more on average than those who do not. Since both the individual and the community (including those who do not possess a post-secondary education) gain, they should share similarly in the cost.
In Quebec, tuition contributes a fragment toward the overall cost of a student's post-secondary education. The population of the province as a whole – 2/3 of whom will not acquire a post-secondary education – is paying most of the bills. Whatever promises were made to the grandparents of today’s students, accessibility has improved, and those who benefit most directly from higher education should be expected to make a fair contribution toward its costs. Taxpayer resources that currently subsidize university tuitions could be used for any number of programs that have a greater benefit for all (for example, eliminating the need for a $200 surcharge on health care). The student leaders are portraying their fight as one for social justice. It is not or, at least, that is not how it began. At the outset it was no more than a struggle to maintain an entitlement program. Raising tuition fees would be more socially just than maintaining them artificially low. It may well be that the student protests have since morphed into a much larger cause or set of causes seeking social and economic reforms in Quebec, but the initial stimulus was anything but.
As a final note, it’s worth pointing out that many students have not joined the protest movement, and have been attempting to attend their classes throughout. My sympathies and support lay with them. It troubles me to see them unable to attend classes because others block their access to campuses or cause such a ruckus that campuses must be closed to ensure personal safety. Those who do not attend class are free to do so, and should be respected for standing up for their beliefs, but they in turn should also be careful to respect the rights of those who do not share their cause.