Le Québécois Libre, February 15, 2012, No 297.
The 2012 winter semester promises to be an exciting time in Quebec as student associations in colleges and universities across the province launch an "unlimited general strike" in an attempt to block the government's proposed tuition increase.
The movement is buoyed by the success of a one-day strike that managed to shut down several institutions last November 10th. On that day, more than 20,000 students marched through downtown Montreal to the offices of Premier Jean Charest, while small groups coordinated to block the entrances of some universities and CEGEPs. The various actions were reported to have mobilized more than 200,000 students.
What has so many students up in arms? The Charest government has announced its intention to raise tuition fees by $325 per year from now until 2016, ultimately raising the annual tuition to $3,793, an increase of about 75% over the current average tuition of $2,168.
Predictions of Doom
The effect that this move will have on present and future students is, according to the strike movement, clear and simple: fewer people will go to CEGEPs and universities, while some now attending will have to drop out, and others will be forced to work to pay for their tuition (to the detriment of their studies) or to importune their parents for more help. The fact that tuition in Quebec is the cheapest in Canada and will remain relatively inexpensive even after the proposed increases is embarrassing, so those who oppose the hikes have to look for reasons why such a comparison is irrelevant.
The left-wing think tank Institut de recherche et d'informations socio-économique (IRIS), whose research is considered definitive by the strike movement, calculated in 2007 that for every increase of $1000, the number of students able to finish their studies will drop by 19%.
To those of us tempted to ask, "So what?" the strikers have a ready answer: fewer and more-distracted students will damage our society because the more people attend university and learn to be good citizens, the better it will be for all of us.
Indeed, the implication is clear: everyone of a certain age ought to attend university. Education (they never say how much) is a "right." For this reason, the more committed elements of the movement opposing the tuition increase are dedicated to eliminating tuition altogether, in imitation of some places in Europe. IRIS has helpfully costed the proposal at $550 million, a tiny fraction of the provincial budget (but one which, presumably, would grow as many, many more people claimed their rightful degrees...).
To deny that people have a right to education is, according to this movement, to adopt a purely mercenary and basely pragmatic view of the value of education while ignoring its importance in developing civic-minded members of a free and democratic society. The counter-argument ‒ that those who have never had any interest in attending university should not be taxed to pay for those who do, and that public subsidies for elite education are a regressive redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich ‒ is dismissed out of hand. Education is a "social project" and everyone must do his or her part. End of discussion.
In the rhetoric of IRIS and some of the other groups who oppose the increase, the pragmatic justifications for increasing tuition mask a deeper and more sinister commitment to a "neoliberal" (actually corporatist) vision of higher education in which universities are primarily dedicated to research aimed at producing marketable inventions and processes and at setting up partnerships with private companies to milk the creative juices of less-and-less-public scholarship for all its worth. There is of course some truth to this chilling prediction. It describes an actual tendency of American universities, but reduces a very complex and multivalent reality to a simple-minded Manichean picture of "public versus private."
The high-flown talk of a grand debate about the essence and purpose of post-secondary education serves to elevate the topic for those who don't like to talk about grubby financial matters, but of course the main motivation for students to participate in the strike is purely and simply financial self-defense.
But for those who are actually convinced that university is an end in itself or an incubator of good citizens, the strike movement too becomes an end in itself and a sufficient reason for more and more provocative action.
The more radical factions of the student movement like to repurpose the language and imagery of past epochs of student radicalism, particularly the thrilling extremism of May 1968 and its aftermath. In one particularly inept expression of this nostalgia for a time when almost none of the current cohort was even born, a publication of the Association facultaire étudiante des langues et communications at UQAM warned that if students want to block the tuition increase but not to strike, it will then be necessary to "hit harder than ever before" with, among other things, kidnappings! By thus referring to the tactics adopted by the Front de libération du Québec that precipitated the October Crisis of 1970, the students maybe hoped to catch some of the reflected glory of those heroic times and to attract the attention of authorities who seem mostly to ignore them, but they risk attracting the kind of scrutiny that I imagine few of them can bear.
The references to old-school student radicalism are a lot like the references in low-grade undergraduate essays the world over: decontextualized and skin-deep. When the present-day student journal Ultimatum repeats the title of the famous Situationist tract on the "poverty of student life" ‒ De la misère en milieu étudiant, which came out in 1967 and contributed to the subsequent uprising in France ‒ it must necessarily elide the fact that the Situationists were calling for a worldwide council-communist revolution, extending all the way to a revolution of "everyday life." The students of today's strike movement in Quebec are calling for something rather less radical: more handouts from the state.
* Larry Deck is a librarian who lives in Montreal.