Students from Quebec (French Canada) have recently won a significant political victory. They have prevented the implementation of a proposed 82% hike in tertiary fees that would have seen the price of average full-time tuition increase to $4,100 per student per year.
The Quebecois responded to the proposed fee hike by organising rolling student strikes and frequent public protests throughout the province, mobilising hundreds of thousands of people in the process. The political pressure generated ultimately resulted in the defeat of the Liberal Government at recent elections and at least a temporary freeze on tertiary fee increases.
Given Quebec’s high levels of taxation with respect to Canada as a whole, and its history of student political activism, the province’s tertiary education system is remarkably accessible. It boasts the highest proportion of middle-class students in law, engineering and medicine, the most number of students from remote areas and the most first generation students (approximately one-half of the entire 400,000 student population).
However, an increase in university fees, in accordance with global governmental trends, would make university less affordable for poor and middle-income people by burdening them with unviable levels of personal debt. The “user-pays” model would therefore reinforce and extenuate existing socio-economic inequalities.
The second major argument against the fee hike concerns the nature of education itself. As explained by Pierre Martin, a political science professor at the University of Montreal, “An eighty-two per cent increase is not just a price change.” At the base of the debate in Quebec, he says, is a choice or contrast between two philosophies of education.
“One is a philosophy that higher education is a public good, something that society organizes and buys itself, paying for the purpose of the social good. So it’s a collective good that exists for the benefit of everyone.” (Free tuition would fall in this category.)
The other philosophy, he says, “corresponds to a reality [that] higher education is also seen as an investment that an individual makes in order to achieve higher income and a larger income stream in the future.” (Pay your own way falls in this category.)
One of the most important lessons to be learned from the Quebec students is their effective protest strategy of building and coordinating an unlimited general strike in defence of the former philosophy. ‘General’ in that it is a strike that extends across the province including the entire tertiary sector (as well as other industries), and ‘unlimited’ in the sense of indefinite or staged until negotiations with Government have reached an acceptable outcome.
Throughout this year, hundreds of thousands of students have voted collectively to picket their classes and take to the streets with supporters, bringing unbearable economic strain on their provincial Government. (Quebec student strikes in 2005 were estimated to have cost the Government $1million per day.) Confronted with the impossibility of postponing the university semester, the Liberal Government eventually decided to call an early election in September where they were narrowly defeated by the more moderate Parti Quebecois.
At the forefront of this strikingly (pardon the pun) effective strategy was the Coalition Large de l’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante, or CLASSE, the most radical of the three major federations of Quebec student associations/unions. CLASSE was formed especially to help coordinate the anti-fee campaign at a provincial-wide level and to facilitate negotiations with the Government.
As the more militant of the federations, the CLASSE organisers not only opposed the fee hikes but also called for the outright abolition of tertiary fees, making the influential argument that all education could and should be made free through public funding by a more rigorous taxation of Quebec’s banks and wealthy elite.
Yet while organising members of CLASSE may have been at the radical ideological forefront of the protests, it is crucial to recognise the roots of the Quebec student movement in General Assemblies.
General Assemblies are public forums organised on a school/departmental or faculty level where all major decisions concerning the anti-fee-hike campaign goals and strategies were made. Any student can make a proposal to be voted upon. Motions or proposals are decided by majority vote and decisions are binding on the student association/union’s executive.
As many participants and commentators have emphasised, it was the general assembly based structure of the movement – enabling students to meet, discuss, debate and make decisions on a regular basis (during the striking period each local student association held weekly general assemblies) – that sustained the popular momentum behind the strikes and formed the basis of such politically effective mass action. As a spokesperson of CLASSE reflecting on the success of the movement, Gabrielle Nadeau Dubois emphasises, “What must be understood is that the capacity to mobilise students is directly linked to this democratic function [of general assemblies]…Because people feel involved in the decision-making, they are ready to mobilise.”
It is also important to recognise that Quebec has a history of student strikes going back to the 1970s and that recent events have not emerged entirely spontaneously. Indeed, many of the student strike organisers from this year are veterans from a less successful 2007 strike campaign against fee-hikes. However, the 2012 strikes have been the biggest and most effective to date, and the political awareness and energy generated has spread well beyond issues of education. Moreover, it would be too simplistic to attribute the ultimate success of the movement to Quebec’s student political tradition alone.
What is perhaps most exciting and compelling about the movement is how practically transferable the Quebec organising model and striking strategies are. As Dubois reminds us, “the key principle of success in Quebec is exportable, because it’s our mode of organisation.”
The privatisation of education is not limited to Quebec. The challenges of resisting the prevailing ‘neoliberal’ paradigm are as pertinent in Australia as they are across the globe. Although the tertiary sector in Australia compares favourably to North America and many European countries (especially considering that Australians are taxed at the 5th lowest rate in OECD when tax revenue is measured as a percentage of GDP), the recently released Grattan Institute Report on tertiary funding outlines some concerning proposals. This report from the ‘independent’ institute (co-founded by Australian State and Federal Governments and BHP Billiton) recommends an increase in tertiary fees. Indeed the Liberal/Country Party Coalition has already stated that they are pursuing the idea of a 25% increase to university HECs fees.
Should this threat of increasing student debt and further privatisation of Australian education materialise, the student movement in Quebec should serve as a prime example of how we might effectively organise to assert our collective power and defend the principle of accessibility and the concomitant idea of free (publicly funded) education.
For more information about the Quebec student movement and CLASSE see: www.stopthehike.ca