March 23rd, 2012
Maybe I’m just getting old and conservative but I am having a really hard time sympathizing with the student protests in the province of Quebec. Every time I think that I also keep in mind that I probably would have joined them out on the streets, blocking traffic and irritating the hell out of hard-working citizens if I were their age. I grew up in Montreal, went to McGill, and spent a fair amount of time marching and occupying the Vietnam War era. I was in very good company. It felt good to be part of a huge mass of peers, having our emerging identities shaped by waves of solidarity and a strong sense of purpose. It wasn’t very difficult to catch the wave, to join up with the leaders of the protests movements, skipping classes in order to stop a war—or acknowledge the French fact in Quebec. It felt unequivocally like the right and proper thing to be doing. And when you are young there’s nothing more satisfying than transgression, especially when there’s safety in numbers. Joining thousands of your peers is a lot less brave than facing down a tank in the middle of Tiananmen Square all by yourself.
But I also like to think protests were about something big then, bigger than an additional $600 a year in tuition fees. That’s pretty much what it comes down to on the streets of Montreal and Quebec City these days, although I am sure most students would say there’s something much bigger at stake—principles of public education and access. They are partly right. But only partly. Quebec, as every Canadian knows, has the lowest tuition rates in the country. From the get-go, the protests in Quebec seem excessive in light of the enormous provincial government subsidies necessary to keep the fees down. Only Newfoundland and Labrador comes close to such rates, and we don’t have a large CEGEP, or public post-secondary college system, to finance, either. CEGEP students in that system pay virtually no tuition fees. Who is paying for all the instructors, facilities, and services at the more than 70 public CEGEPS in the province? Frankly, I never asked that question when I was a CEGEP student. It just never occurred to any of us.
The protests today are largely directed at universities, where you go in Quebec for advanced education only after you have acquired your CEGEP diploma. Universities need to pay for their own expanding plants, their increasing salary bases, their plans for the future. In Quebec, the gap between the sticker price and the actual full costs of an education is cavernous. How could it not be with such low fees? Student leaders claim that Quebec universities have the capacity to subsidize students, but spend way too much money on staff salaries. That’s a pretty lame line, to be sure, and cheap to boot. (One wonders what these same students will be saying about salaries once they enter the workforce and become members of unions, but that’s for someone else’s longitudinal study.)
So what do they or does anyone know about the real costs of an education? I am not on top of what is circulating in the Quebec media about those real costs but to date I haven’t seen strong enough counter arguments from either the universities or the government, and so perhaps it’s no wonder the protests are gaining momentum. Certainly, we all have a right to know why education is getting more expensive. What about the costs of upgrading classrooms, the nuts and bolts of administration, research subsidies, new buildings, prestige projects, student services, and so on? If students want to rally support for low or no tuition fees then they should look to other Western nations where tuition is fully subsidized by the public. How do they do it? The debate, such as it, seems confrontational and facile at the moment, and it is not helped by the temptations of early summer which only encourages the urge to get outdoors and march up and down St Catherine Street in a t-shirt. Not that I’m envious….
The growing impasse is also really pissing off the taxpayers whose bridges and roads have been repeatedly blocked. Without the public on their side the students will be doomed: the Premier will see a surge in popularity, and fees could go even higher eventually. There is now even a threat of lost semesters. I haven’t heard a peep from Quebec professors yet, but I imagine their sympathies are divided and/or compromised. Mine would be.
It looks like a giant mess from here, and I don’t see the students winning in the end. Polls are showing the Quebec public is quite divided. More demonstrations are planned for next week. I have an uneasy feeling about all this. I’d be boarding up my storefront this weekend.