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Québec students strike over tuition hikes

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This week, there are more than 65,000 students on strike in Québec. University students, but also college-level students, are walking out of classrooms to reverse the 75 per cent raise in tuition fees over five years announced in the last provincial budget. In the space of a single week, the number of strikers has tripled, and more strike votes are set to take place at the end of February and the beginning of March. Québec is under strong pressure from its government and elites to catch up with Canada's average tuition fees and to raise the ratio of private funding in higher education institutions.

A 75 per cent hike

The hike announced in the last budget which Jean Charest's Liberal government prepared, the second since 2007, will bring tuition fees up to $3,793 per year: fees will have nearly doubled within the last decade. The objective is to catch up with the average Canadian tuition fees by 2020. The government has announced that it will improve the financial-assistance program, claiming that this will absorb the hike's negative socioeconomic impacts. Nonetheless, only students who are granted bursaries will be fully compensated, roughly 25 per cent of the student population. Those holding loans and those ineligible for financial aid will have to pay the full price.

The fee increase is not an isolated measure: it fits into a general shift in universities' sources of financing from public to private. Indeed, in a document appended to the budget, Un plan de financement des universités équitable et équilibré [A fair and balanced plan to fund universities] (!!!), the government also advocates for an increase in charitable contributions from corporations and individuals. In addition, it encourages universities to develop more research partnerships with businesses and to generate marketable research and spin-offs.

Students' strike movement

A tactical escalation to get the government to cave in preceded the outbreak of the strike, but the former has up until now turned a deaf ear. Mobilization reached its climax on November 10, 2011 in a sizeable national demonstration which brought together 35,000 protesters. The government's sternness compelled the student movement to strike. The CLASSE (Coalition de l'Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante élargie) proved to be the movement's initial driving force, demanding that the tuition-fee hikes be cancelled and advocating free education. The Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec (FECQ) and the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ) are consulting their members and may eventually join in the strike movement. In the meantime, these twin federations have planned actions all across Québec and announced an upcoming national demonstration on March 22, 2012.

Many labour unions and public personalities already support the students (despite no reporting on the subject in English). Since the government has shown very little openness, the strike will likely extend into March, and even beyond. The movement is already battling police repression. Indeed, on February 17, the administration of the CÉGEP du Vieux-Montréal ordered a lock-out, hoping to keep striking students from having access to the college premises. The latter therefore started occupying the building, and the administration called the police to end the occupation. Thirty-seven students were arrested. The Fédération québécoise des professeurs d'université (FQPPU) has protested police action against peaceful students. Incidentally, the Québec government intends to force professors to teach despite the strike.

Documentation and information

In addition to numerous studies on free education and university governance, the Institut de recherche et d'informations socio-économiques (IRIS) has produced a free explanatory booklet (also translated into English) to debunk myths circulated by right-wing discourse favouring tuition-fee hikes. IRIS researchers took part in more than 50 conferences or debates held in educational institutions, including in remote areas of the province (Gaspésie, Abitibi, etc.). Moreover, the Montréal-based publishing house LUX has brought out Université Inc., which I have co-written with my colleague Max Ouellet. It has become a reference book for many student strikers.

The bulk of IRIS's work has been aimed at demonstrating that the tuition-fee hikes were far from inevitable, despite claims made by the principals and the government. We have also laid out how this policy will increase student debt and be detrimental to attendance. At a more fundamental level, we have illustrated how this increase in fees participates in privatizing the financing, but also the mission of universities, a phenomenon which can be observed in most countries of the OECD. By presenting higher education as both a lucrative personal investment and leverage to revitalize economic and capital growth, Québec's political and economic elites are bypassing the primary role of education: to develop critical autonomy and to transmit cultural and intellectual heritage.

The strike: A historical weapon for the student movement

In the history of Québec, students have frequently turned to general strikes. It has proven to be the most efficient means of countering increases in tuition fees and defending both the accessibility and the public character of education. In the past, Québec has experienced eight general student strikes (including those of 1986, 1990, and 1996) for which the main objective was to impede tuition-fee hikes.

The most recent student strike, in the spring of 2005, reversed cuts to the financial-assistance program. At the time, around 185,000 higher-education students joined in the strike movement, to which we must add the participation of numerous high school students. Unprecedented in both size and duration, this strike had gained strong support within the population.

It remains to be seen who of the students or the government shall, this time, will be most convincing. Nonetheless, as Canadian households are choking on the grip of a record level of debt, the "investment" rhetoric put forward by the elite to dismantle public education and to pass the buck to families and individuals is unlikely to ring true. Presented as a business opportunity which secures a return on one's own human capital, the fee hike is quickly revealed to be just another strategy to get the poorest to pay for the crisis, this time by financing the new marketed university with the students' credit.

Eric Martin works with IRIS, a Montreal-based progressive think-tank. This article was first posted on Behind the Numbers.

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