Three months ago it was not uncommon for Montreal streets to be clogged with students and supporters disrupting traffic, making noise, and drawing attention to the province’s plan to raise university tuition fees.
For the past year student associations had built a large movement advocating against the tuition hikes planned by the Liberal Charest government. Long accustomed to the lowest tuition fees in the country due to a 20 year freeze, the group rapidly grew under a banner of free education for all.
The movement had a wide appeal to Montreal’s liberal and social welfare oriented population and although current issues like poverty, corruption, and democratic reform were folded into the students’ platform, the core remained a strident resistance to the tuition hikes.
Some said the tuition hikes were necessary and that students should be happy with the still low rates as compared with the rest of the country. Some said that nothing in life is free and asked, “Why should tax payers support the students?”. Still others contended that easy access to education, especially for the poor, was a right and that an educated and skilled population was a benefit to everyone and society as a whole. It certainly wasn’t impossible – post secondary education is free across much of Europe and while Quebec Universities’ tuitions may be among the lowest, but its taxes are also the highest in the country.
The ensuing provincial election was largely influenced by this debate. Corruption, arrogance, and inaction on key issues on the part of the incumbent were dominant, but the students were organized, vocal, and there is little doubt that they helped swing support for a Parti Quebec government, promising to abolish the hikes.
And abolish they did. The rate hikes were cancelled. There was much cause for celebration. Democracy had functioned in an important way.
But the 40 million dollars in university funding lost in the reversal of the tuition hike were not replaced by other funding sources . This was the plan. Underfunded institutions would simply have to cope with less.
Three months later, the PQ unveiled its education budget, cutting university funding a further 124 million dollars. All up, the universities would need to find a way to deal with $164 million less in financial resources.
It’s difficult to imagine how cuts this large will not somehow have an negative effect on the quality of the university education students will receive. Although direct costs to the students remain low, it seems pretty clear that they will be getting considerably less for their money.
Had the Parti Quebec broken their promise to kill the hikes, accusations of lying and unaccountability would have no doubt been raised. But isn’t this just as substantial a betrayal of the students’ trust and support? Haven’t the students been betrayed in a far more fundamental and underhanded way?
So where are they? Where the red squares? Certainly when they rejected passing the increased cost of university on to the students, the expectation was that the government would find that funding elsewhere. Did the students really have so shallow a conviction that only the dollar cost to them was of concern? That what they got for their money was beside the point?
Or is a university education merely a sheet of paper bought at the end of four years? In which case, a discount is all that they wanted.
To me, supporting the students in their advocacy of free education for all, presupposed the stance that as a society, we were going to invest in our collective future. That the funds in public coffers, albeit limited, are distributed for the good of all, and that if free education was broadly and democratically supported, the money would be found elsewhere. Not by simply cutting service.
Yet the silence that greeted the budget shows indeed the shallow vision of the red squares. Their leader sold out for a career in government and paid his grassroots back by pulling the carpet out from under them. The students will pay the same for less.
Throughout, I resisted the opinion that whispered to me, but I have to agree, that this movement’s philosophic convictions were as empty as the streets are today.
And in case you’ve internalized the narrative of “Education isn’t Free”, remember, public funding is a matter of public priorities.