By now I hope most readers have heard about the huge student protests in Quebec.As a student myself and a former student in Montreal, I am, and have always been, steadfastly anti-strike — and I’d like to explain why.
First let me preface this article with an introduction. I am originally from Vancouver, British Columbia, which, according to Quebec, makes me an “out-of-province” student who pays higher fees than a Quebec resident. I am a recent graduate from McGill University (my convocation is in 6 days, actually) who just spent the latter half of her senior year enduring daily, and most recently, nightly, disturbances by protesters, riot police, and news helicopters hovering above my apartment on St. Laurent.
While I normally don’t involve myself in school politics, earlier in February I attended the Arts General Assembly to vote on whether or not our department was going to join the rest of the province and go on strike. I felt strongly about this issue and voted against it.
The vote to abstain won and while other departments striked independently (ranging from one day to one week), as a school, McGill was the only school in Quebec to abstain.
What followed however, were increased disturbances in the form of student picket lines – the majority of whom weren’t even McGill students – barring others from entering their classrooms, deafening protests in the library (out of all places!), and the constant sound of the vuvuzelas as protesters marched at the front gate of the school.
By the time exam season came around in April, McGill administration had to secretly release the times and locations of the exams the day before the test, lest the protesters discover the locations and interrupt them, thus cancelling the exam altogether. As it turns out, that’s exactly what happened.
These events escalated to a point where, in April, I no longer felt safe on campus, walking down the streets, and even in my own home. I was paying almost $6,000 in tuition fees only to be scared shitless.
Please note, this does not mean I condone Charest’s recent implementation of Bill 78 – quite the opposite, in fact. I will always be in favour of democracy and having the ability to strike. Charest’s new Bill removes the freedom to do just that and reflects a type of government I cannot and will not support.
However, these protesters have “crossed the line” and here’s why:
Reason #1 — Money
I may not have majored in economics but even I realise that the tuition fees in Quebec are low – artificially low. In other words, the provincial government in the past has previously caved into student demands and frozen tuition fees at an “optimal” number (for students). This is known quite literally as the “Tuition Freeze.“
During my four years at McGill, I have found that certain people in Quebec have latched onto the fact that in the 1960s, tuition fees at McGill were only $500. So why on earth would the Quebec government ever dream of raising tuition to a whopping $3,793? My response to them would be yes, it was great when burgers were also $0.25 cents and bubblegum only a penny. But back in the 1960s salaries were also lower – much lower.
Photo: Screenshot / Bank of Canada
What protesters have failed to take into consideration is inflation. If you look at the image above, you can see that $500 in 1960 would amount to approximately $3,942 today. That amount of $3,942 is exactly $1,774 more than the current tuition rate of $2,168 (and I’m only talking about Quebec students here!). Now let me remind you that the Charest government plans on increasing tuition $254 per year for the next seven years. That makes a total increase of …. $1,778!
In case you got lost in the numbers, Charest’s increase in tuition fees is not ludicrous. What is he doing is finally increasing tuition to match the current levels of inflation. Yes, there is a $1,778 increase. But Quebec has had an artificially low tuition for decades and ultimately it harms the students. I have experienced this firsthand – the lack of facilities on campus, lack of teaching assistants, and lack of availability by professors (did I mention that students have to print their own handouts before a class? And it’s not because of environmental concern). As the premier of a province with a current $500 billion deficit incurred through tertiary education, this marginal increase in tuition is not only necessary but also long overdue.
And finally, as a British Columbia resident, I feel obliged to add that the current students in Quebec only pay $0.13 to the dollar for the tuition they are receiving. The rest of the money comes from taxpayers – Canadian taxpayers, who may or may not have attended university themselves nor sent their own children to university.
Reason #2 — These strikes are no longer democratic
While it’s true that the strikes are very large, it’s also true that no matter how many people show up to the protests on the streets, outside (and inside) Charest’s office, and on my doorstep yelling at me to join the movement, these people are not a fair democracy nor are they a fair representation of who they “claim” to represent (for example — me!).
Once upon a time these protests had democratic roots and were simply a handful of disgruntled students exerting their right to vocalize their disapproval of tuition increases. However, in the past few months we have seen everyone, including the leaders of the student unions forget their original reasons for protesting. Suddenly, everyone has jumped the bandwagon, donning their red squares of solidarity without truly knowing its implication (those red squares were recently seen on the lapels of Quebec filmmakers at the Cannes Film Festival!).
Simply put, the movement has become too large for any kind of effective negotiations to take place. Many supporters of the protests have likened this movement to the civil rights movement back in the 1960s (thus fueling their reputation for being “hippies”). Except back then people were protesting racial segregation, minimum wage, and gender discrimination.Today, we’re demanding free education, paid for by others.
The tune of the student strikes has also changed quite dramatically since its early beginnings. No longer are they peacefully marching on the streets. Now they’re destroying private property, vandalizing buildings, and setting off smoke bombs in the public metro system. No longer are the strikers intent on resisting tuition fee increases. They and all their supporters have become part of a larger movement – one that would see the downfall of the current government. What happens if they succeed? What happens if they kick Charest to the curb?
If they succeed, our democratically elected government is crippled through violent and forceful means. Is this really what we have become?
Reason #3 — What is the big picture?
Margaret Wente, a columnist for Canada’s The Globe & Mail wrote “It’s a little hard for the rest of us to muster sympathy for Quebec’s downtrodden students, who pay the lowest tuition fees in all of North America…the total increase would amount to the cost of a daily grande cappuccino.”
While this has been said many times, I still think it’s necessary to put Quebec’s tuition into perspective. Let’s look at Harvard, which McGill likes to consider its equivalent (you can actually buy T-shirts on campus that say “Harvard: America’s McGill”): the cost of attending this prestigious school will set you back $37,567 in tuition alone. Relative to the $4,000 (I’m rounding up here) Quebec students have to pay, it’s absurd.
To address another issue, if this student movement truly believes that maintaining access to university for lower-income families is only possible by keeping tuition levels at their current levels, think again! According to the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, there was “no observed correlation in Canada between lower tuition fees and higher rates of university participation.” Moreover, Statistics Canada released a survey completed in 2007 stating the biggest factor influencing university participation was not tuition fees, but “parental influence, high-school quality and other social factors.”
A university degree is an investment but that doesn’t mean its an automatic ticket to a decent job and a pleasant living. Sure, some people get lucky and find their dream job after college. But that isn’t the reality. In a conversation I had with a recent McGill graduate who majored in political science, she stated “I can learn political science in a public library for free. But instead I decided to pay for it. And I did so with no delusions about what jobs would be available to me after.”
It’s true that students and recent graduates with degrees in political science, economics, and psychology are genuinely adding to the betterment of society. But you have to keep in mind that students, such as myself, are compensated for their skills they learned in school. High-income professions (think doctor or lawyer) earn salaries well above their less-educated counterparts, but they also paid a lot more for their extensive years of training and education. So yes, the services doctors and lawyers provide are a benefit to society yet are not provided for free. Why should education?
Needless to say, I am tired of this topic – it has become increasingly difficult to discuss, both for those in negotiations and those watching the situation from the outside – and at this point, there is no “obvious” winner.
I remain firm in my belief that the protesters are not justified in their continued use of physical violence, mass disruption of the city and everyday normalcy, and the overall disrespect for the educational and democratic system.
Something’s gotta give and it’s got to happen soon.
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