Quebec students are on strike. The province with the lowest tuition fees is where the students are the most militant in opposition to rising costs of higher education.

Is it the Quebec difference at work? Yes, though elsewhere in Canada people have done important work setting out the problems facing students, and the public education system at the post secondary level of colleges and universities.

The analysis of how students have been getting shafted has been done regularly and well by the Canadian Federation of Students. The Canadian Association of University Teachers has demonstrated that today’s students pay more than any other previous generation for education. Marc Lee of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has shown how the B.C. government has increased taxes on students — which in a public education system is what tuition fees amount to — while reducing taxes for the wealthy.

Quebec students are in the streets because Liberal Premier Jean Charest’s government wanted to transform student grants into loans. What was supposed to be scholarship money for living costs, becomes a form of future obligation to pay, much like an indentured service. Go to university, and then go into hock to the bank for the foreseeable future.

A grant is a form of transfer payment; the money comes out of taxes paid to the province. The amounts received by students go into rent, food, transport, books and discretionary expenses, as well as tuition. In other words, it goes straight back whence it came: grants go from citizens paying taxes (including students) to students, and then back to the community, and then the cycle begins again.

The main point is that students age. University days last about four years, then the full-time labour market beckons. Those who receive grants become in time those who contribute more to the taxes that fund students.

By transforming grants into loans, the province of Quebec is staging a hold up of the current generation of students. They get to pay twice — once up front, and once again in interest on loans. Previously, Quebec was giving grants, in full confidence that this student generation would contribute more later through taxes to the next one.

The new way of funding education is intergenerational theft. The generation ahead of the current student generation steals from the young. This has been going on across Canada for at least a decade. Quebec has been protected by a tuition freeze won after the last student strike in 1991. In fact the grant system in Quebec was a product of yet an earlier student strike.

Quebec student associations have calculated that for each $5,000 in financial aid, students used to get a little more than one-half in scholarships ($2,600). With what is being proposed, the grant portion would fall to $300, leaving loans of $4,700 to make up the difference. Under its new regime, students could go into debt up to $8,000 per year, thanks to higher loan ceilings.

The Quebec Liberal government supports the same income contingent loan scheme favoured by the (Bob) Rae Commission in Ontario, and pioneered in Britain under Tony Blair. Students would repay loans according to the amount of income earned. This is supposed to be fair: no income, no repayment.

Student associations have been quick to understand that wealthy families can help out with debt repayment more easily than poor families. Therefore, when loans replace grants, it the poor who lose access to education, and society that loses something of the contribution of those denied the possibility of furthering their formal education.

Quebec students are striking for a just society, one where there is solidarity between the generations. They are also mounting an effective defence of public education.

The new model for building the University is through corporate funding tied to private purposes, and tuition fee increases funded by student loans. The logic is that education increases income potential, so the students can afford to take on debt and corporate money is needed because governments are financially strapped.

This logic is false. Governments can more easily carry the cost of debt than individual students, and corporations should be paying taxes not giving grants to universities for services rendered.

Corporate money overwhelms the independent research that justifies having a university in the first place. Student debt distorts educational choices and weakens the educational experience as students take on cheap labour jobs to avoid taking on more loans.

Not only do Quebec students have a better understanding of their society than does the Charest government, they are mobilized to defend it, while the premier is doing his best to undermine what is best about it. This student strike action deserves widespread study and emulation.

Duncan Cameron

Duncan Cameron

Born in Victoria B.C. in 1944, Duncan now lives in Vancouver. Following graduation from the University of Alberta he joined the Department of Finance (Ottawa) in 1966 and was financial advisor to the...