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May 22, 2012

Students Strike: Who's Listening?

Reuel S. Amdur

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The biggest news in Quebec right now-if not in Canada-is the student strike against plans to raise the tuition fees. The strike: 11 weeks and counting.

It has pulled students out of class from universities and CEGEP’s, the province’s junior colleges.  Even some high school students have joined in.  Eventually the strike will end, if it has not already done so by the time this article appears, but its lessons remain.

What precipitated the student action?  Quebec Premier Jean Charest tabled a budget in the National Assembly to increase tuition for Quebec residents by 75% over five years, by $325 a year, starting this fall. 

Currently, the province has the lowest tuition in the country, as low as $2168 a year for residents.  However, tuition was only $540 as recently as 1990.  Under pressure from the strike, Charest offers to spread the increase over seven years instead of five, while increasing it according to increase in cost of living. 

The issue needs to be seen in three contexts: the comparative fees elsewhere in Canada and in Europe, the economic position of the students, and the broader social implications of the student resistance movement.  We start with the comparisons.

At $2168 a year, the Quebec tuition rate looks generous in comparison with neighboring Ontario at $6640.  (Figures are necessarily approximate and vary depending among other things on the career path chosen.  Statistics Canada came up with a cross-discipline average of $2649 for Quebec.)  Newfoundland is the only other province whose rates are in shouting distance of Quebec’s.

It must be remembered that Quebec more than other provinces looks not only to Canada but also to Europe, especially France.  Public universities in France are free, with just an annual enrolment fee of up to 420 euros (around $546 Canadian).  While not all continental European universities are free, you would be hard put to find any that are anywhere near as expensive as the Quebec rate.  Canadian rates in general would be more in the British range, though somewhat lower than the U.S.

Then we come to the issue of what students can afford.  According to Wikipedia, 40% of Quebec students do not receive parental support and 80% work while studying full time.  Half live on $12,200 a year, below the $16,320 poverty line (low income cutoff).  All of this is not surprising, given that students are generally thought of as poor.  An additional consideration is that students are graduating with student debts that are ever higher. 

Finally, there is the matter of the mass movement, with literally hundreds of thousands in the street, hundreds of thousands of justice-seeking students and their supporters, hundreds of thousands that the powers that be and those that want to be are trying desperately to ignore.

  1. And if more students across the country follow suit, he can still sit on the sidelines.

It has been observed that siding with the students might aid the Parti Québécois in the forthcoming provincial election.  If the PQ wins, they might with their increased power then aid the Bloc in the next federal election, to the detriment of the NDP.  A fine argument for inaction, filled with maybes.  However, the Liberals may lose in any case, so support the students or not the situation might be the same.

Basically, the NDP once more fails miserably to provide support, if not leadership, when progressive forces are on the move. The Occupy movement was given the most tentative demonstrations of support, while the NDP ignores the Quebec student strike.  One gets back to the elephant books and the NDP version: What Elephant?

Rolland-Ledru may or may not have said it, but Gandhi and Martin Luther King repeated it: “There go the people.  I must follow them for I am their leader.”  If Mulcair finds himself in Montreal during one of the mass marches, what could be expected from him?  “Where can a guy find a parking spot in this mess?”

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