By Scott Eaton
As students continue to strike in Quebec, people continue to shake their heads. Many have correctly asserted that the strikes themselves are both paltry in nature, and inherently absurd. What sympathy existed for Quebec's protestors seems to have dwindled, as protests resorted to extreme forms: masked students commandeering the classes of those students opposed to the strike, and stone-tossing demonstrators provoking Quebec's provincial police force. To most, this is old news.
At the root of the discontent is a promise made to Quebeckers during the Quiet Revolution – free post-secondary education. This promise has turned a strike concerning a small hike in tuition fees into a large-scale social movement.
The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador had its own debate over the idea of free tuition at Memorial University. In March 1965, Premier Joey Smallwood announced to the province that beginning in September, first-year students' tuition fees would be paid by the government, provided that their parents resided within the province. Yet, the students opposed the idea; The Muse ran a story titled Students Oppose Free Tuition For First-Years, and students argued that the policy would result in free riders. Students coming out of Grade 11, they stressed, would enrol at MUN (where they otherwise wouldn't) simply because it was subsidized by the government.
Later that year, Rex Murphy, then finance minister of MUN's student union, noted the inherent flaws in the government's plan in a speech at the 1965 Canadian Union of Students Congress in Lennoxville, Que. He found that not everyone was exempt from first-year fees. Winners of government scholarships, for example, had to pay their tuition fees, eliminating much of the incentive for high school students to strive for academic excellence. Mr. Murphy's speech received much media attention, and Mr. Smallwood was asked to comment on the matter. Amongst cutting words for Mr. Murphy, he appeared to make a shift in policy, announcing that free tuition for second-year students was in the works. By October, the premier had established a plan which granted free tuition to all Newfoundlanders; students were even offered "living salaries," which ranged between $50 and $100.
The policy was radical, yet its reasoning was sound: a fully educated population can boost one's economy, and although Newfoundlanders' academic qualifications were generally on par with the rest of Canada, they had the lowest average income in Canada thereby restricting their ability to enrol at Memorial.
Thus, offering free post-secondary education to people provincewide was an innovative and practical idea.
The policy was not perfect. Many students who did not truly need financial help still received funding. The introduction of a "needs test" helped, but students still managed to bypass eligibility rules (e.g. car ownership precluded eligibility, so many registered cars in their father's name). Free tuition at Memorial has since been phased out, but its rationale was satisfied. Rationale, unfortunately, is something that is currently lacking in Quebec; free tuition for the sake of free tuition is unlikely to evoke feelings of pity from Canadians elsewhere. Without a more appealing foundation, the plea can scarcely be taken seriously.
Scott Eaton is an honours history student at Memorial. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.