Now is the season of student discontent
April 27th, 2012

Now is the season of student discontent. Every day brings more violence and rage in Quebec, as students continue to protest the government’s fee hike on the streets of Montreal. The issue has clearly escalated from general anger against the (modest) tuition increase to a much wider Occupy the Man sort of movement, with echoes of éclater le bourgeoisie heard all around. I have no idea where this Quebec Spring is going to end up but it’s serious and powerfully disruptive. When I was in Montreal a few weeks ago I saw hundreds of student demonstrators on the street below our hotel, calmly marching to somewhere. A colleague of mine exclaimed that it was fabulous—just like the ‘sixties and ‘seventies. I don’t know, I had an uneasy feeling about it all. That calm has since been replaced by something darker and determined, for sure. Perhaps the end of the winter semester will lead to some dissipation of protest energy, although there are no signs of slowing down yet. Government is playing chicken; the students feel roasted.

Here in Newfoundland our provincial budget came down this week. Loudest applause in the House of Assembly surely went to the Finance Minister when he announced the continuation of the tuition fee freeze. I am not sure students would be taking to the streets with the fervor of Quebec students should things have been different, but there would have been a lot of noise, for sure. A province that moved into the black for several years, that has been flush with oil revenues,  couldn’t possibly get away with tuition hikes—not now, and not without an enormous amount of fuss. So be it. As long as the university is duly compensated for the low fees and can go forward with confidence and appropriate support then I’m more than good with that.

In related news, I woke up to a national news story about the current goings on at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Maybe it’s a slow news day. It’s rare that this kind of thing gets that much media attention. But maybe it’s the sheer stupidity of the situation that caught some CBC reporter’s attention. Seems to me someone made a real bonehead decision on their board of governors, effectively prohibiting the three student reps on the board from voting on matters concerning student interests – like tuition fees. Now, how dumb is that? Why don’t they censor the faculty members from board meetings when they discuss pay scales, or curriculum changes? Isn’t everyone ultimately in a conflict of interest? Surely the greater good – the health and well-being of Lakehead – is the common purpose?

Either you have representation from your constituent groups on a university board or you don’t. Everything on a board agenda should be of interest to all parties in attendance. Otherwise, what’s the point? The Lakehead Chair of the board claims he sought the ‘best legal advice’ on the matter. Somehow that doesn’t seem right. Will lawyers say anything you want them to? The Lakehead student union is challenging the bylaw. They have their own legal counsel. My money’s on them.

At this time of year, hearing pleas from international students to be readmitted into programs from which they have failed helps put the whole student rights issue into perspective. The School of Graduate Studies simply can’t unilaterally readmit a student, giving him or her a second or third chance. Not without strong and compelling arguments from the departments or programs themselves, not without very sound reasons. And even then…all students need to be treated the same way. But many international students are so loathe to return to their home countries after failing out that their pleading takes on a special urgency. You can hear it in their emails and their awkwardly phrased letters of entreaty. You’d have to have the heart of Labradorite not to be sympathetic. And we try to keep them in the game by recommending alternate pathways to their goal: perhaps some undergraduate courses to improve both their grades and understanding of the subject they wish to pursue.

The point is, the needs of international students are often quite different from those of our own. I wonder how many international students are marching on the streets of Montreal.

Dr. Noreen Golfman is Professor of English and Dean of Graduate Studies. Her post secondary education included study at McGill, University of Alberta, and University of Western Ontario. She has been teaching and writing in the areas of Canadian literature and film studies for most of her career. She is the president of the Canadian Federation of Humanities and Social Sciences, founding director of the annual St. John's International Women's Film Festival, and director of the MUN Cinema Series. Dr. Golfman's blog 'Postcards From the Edge' will be updated every Thursday.

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