For the past few months, Quebec university and CEGEP students have been protesting the Quebec government’s plan to increase university tuiton by $325 a year for the next five years. For the past few weeks, there’ve been protests almost daily in Montreal and QuÃ©bec City. And this week, the protests will ramp up even more, in anticipation of the provincial budget, which is expected to be released today. More than 100,000 students across the province are on strike, either with a limited or unlimited mandate, and some classes have been suspended (especially at CEGEPs, where most of the students who’re on a unlimited strike are enrolled). There’ve been confrontations with the police (a student has lost an eye from shrapnel from a flash grenade police used to disperse a crowd), and things are generally tense.
Quebec currently has by far the lowest tuition rates in Canada (~$2300/year, compared to the national average of $4900), in part because students have mobilized in the past. Tuition was frozen from the 1990s to 2007, and has not risen much since then. The universities, especially McGill University (which, being an internationally influential anglophone university, has a… complicated relationship to the QuÃ©bec government), have lobbied hard to get a tuition increase, saying that they can’t keep competitive with other Canadian universities if they don’t get more funding, and it’s easier to convince the government to increase tuition rather than to increase its subsidy (especially considering that much of the province’s infrastructure is dangerously crumbling, and the government money is spread very thin).
The students, of course, argue that such a steep increase (which will still keep tuition below the current national average) will severely limit how many, and which, students will be able to afford to go to university. The prevailing attitude is that we shouldn’t be comparing Quebec to the rest of Canada, but to other progressive models of education like those in parts of Europe, where university is free or very cheap. This, some of the protesting student bodies say, is the direction we should be going in, not the direction of the rest of Canada.
I am originally from Ontario, which has the highest average tuition rates in the country. Education is not accessible to a lot of people, and the debt burden at the end of it is often crippling. I’m astonished that loan reform has not been a part of the public discussion on either side, and I think re-evaluating how and when student loans are repaid would offset a great deal of the economic burden that the tuition increase will add. Access to education isn’t just about what someone has to pay upfront: people weigh whether or not they anticipate being able to pay off their loans when they’re done their degree within the terms of the loan, and that greatly impacts whether or not they take the loan (and thus have increased access to university). Currently, student loans in Canada (ie, those managed by either the National Student Loan Service or their provincial equivalent in some provinces including Quebec) do not accrue interest while a person is in school. Interest starts accruing once the person graduates, and the student must start paying back their loan six months after studies are complete.
Maybe I’m an outlier, but the majority of people I know who graduated university with a bachelor’s degree did not have stable, well-paying, “adult” jobs six months out of university. Most of them were either in grad school (which, in the sciences, is a way to stave off paying undergrad loans while getting a stipend that covers tuition and then some) or working low-level jobs for bad pay with little job security. A few people had decently paying jobs but short contracts. I can’t think of anyone who went straight from undergrad into a stable, permanent, well-paid position within six months, which is an unspoken assumption underlying the loan repayment schemes. Loan reform, then, is a natural part of the conversation, and I think that progress between the student organizations and the government (who insists that it won’t back down on the tuition increase) could be made if that topic was broached. I am utterly mystified why no one is talking about it.
The other aspect of all this is that I want to mention is the general deterioration of the discourse between students and the academic community and the administration and government. (Parse that in pairs, please.) McGill spent almost the entire previous semester under a tense, terse strike by the academic support workers. The student demonstrations in the past few months have included a couple of occupations of the administration building, one of which resulted in the riot police arriving on campus and pepper spraying both protesters and some bystanders. (The riot police weren’t called by university staff, but from a call out from the initial police response.) Riot police have been present at many of the recent demonstrations, and the tone of the public discussion is very combative. The government, which doesn’t stand much of a chance next election due to a lot of bungled and mishandled files, doesn’t have much to lose by standing firm on the tuition raise. I suspect that at the end of the day, the raise will go through, and the level of discourse will get even more combative (and possibly [more] violent).
I should reiterate that most of the protests so far have been peaceful. But as protests increase in number and size, and tempers flare, and anger at previous police interventions (like the flash grenades, which are dangerous) builds, I think they will become less peaceful soon. The riot police have already been around these protests – and have intervened. In addition to the students currently on strike, many student unions have voted to have a one or three day strike this week, and massive protests are planned in Montreal and QuÃ©bec for today and Thursday.