A not-so-public battle for a very public good

Quebec students are engaged in a ferocious defense of Canadian values

Remarkable events are afoot in Quebec, although you wouldn’t know it by reading the news.

And these are events that could will have enormous impact on us in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The ongoing student strike in Quebec really began last year with the announcement that the provincial Liberal government of Premier Jean Charest intended to raise tuition fees by 75% over the next five years. Quebec has, historically, had the lowest tuition fees in the country – although their nearest rival, Newfoundland and Labrador, has been steadily moving in on that claim.

Quebec’s Liberal government has been angling to reverse decades of post-secondary education policy for some time, but has been hesitant to do so because, just like in Newfoundland and Labrador, the post-secondary system and its public accessibility has been a source of cultural and national pride. It has also been the source of enormous economic benefits and of Quebec’s highly educated, engaged population.

Striking similarities

It’s perhaps no coincidence that both Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador treasure and value the quality and public accessibility of their post-secondary education systems so much. For Quebec, the post-secondary system plays a vital role in keeping its unique history and culture alive and dynamic. Ensuring a highly educated population has been key to ensuring its populace and workers are able to hold their own as a minority population.

Likewise, Memorial University of Newfoundland traces its roots to the year Newfoundland and Labrador joined Canada. In the wake of that fateful – and heavily contested – decision to join Canada, the “Newfoundland University” as it was called in its early days was conceived as a way to protect our own unique cultural heritage and ensure our people would be able to obtain an education that would make them the equals of any other Canadian in this unknown future partnership we had embarked upon.

It is no wonder, then, that the post-secondary system has become a national treasure for both Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador – perhaps the greatest social policy accomplishment either province has to show for themselves (well, Quebec also has a brilliant, extremely low-cost provincial public childcare system…but our activists are working on that here in Newfoundland too).

If it ain’t broke, don’t break it

So when Charest threatened to tear down one of Quebec’s greatest treasures by raising tuition fees, it’s no wonder the students revolted. At campus after campus, in an incredible display of organization and democratic ethos, students coordinated referendums and over the next several months hundreds of thousands of students voted to go on strike against the government. Students – often with faculty support – shut down classes and campuses. What has followed has been months of incredible protests, rallies, and other creative events that have mobilized the province’s student population like nothing in decades. More than that, it’s galvanized the entire population of Quebec to assert their democratic rights and demand the Quebec government stop hiding in a corner making decisions and accounting to no one (like their federal government counterparts). Young and old, and even rich and poor, are all wearing the red cloth squares that have become the symbol of support for the student strike.

…hundreds of thousands of students voted to go on strike against the government. Students – often with faculty support – shut down classes and campuses.

Yet you would hardly know it from reading the mainstream corporate media of English Canada. The only mention of the word ‘red’ on the Globe and Mail is an article lamenting a misunderstood brand of red wine. CBC coverage of the weekend’s Earth Day march in Montreal insisted it had little to do with the ongoing tuition fee struggles – even though all the placards in their photos bore anti-tuition fee messages. The National Post made no mention until the first students were caught on camera throwing stones – after weeks of being beaten, tear-gassed and provoked by riot police. The amazing thing is not that violence finally broke out last week. The amazing thing is that the masterfully organized students maintained restraint for over 10 weeks of protests despite frequent provocation by armed state police.

The Quebec student strike is important for at least two major reasons. First of all, it has galvanized the population of Quebec and reinvigorated a democratic spirit which is rapidly disappearing from a Canada beleaguered by the anti-democratic and largely unaccountable activities of the federal Conservative government. The province’s population has been inspired by its students: the Earth Day rally with its march a quarter million strong – which stunned not only its own organizers but the entire world – was the product of a population remembering what democracy is all about, and that it is about making sure that nobody – even elected representatives – enact policies without the consent of the public. Even more than the North American ‘Occupy’ movement, the mobilization against tuition fee increases has been a truly universal movement, drawing support from all classes and sectors of Quebec society.

…it has…reinvigorated a democratic spirit which is rapidly disappearing from a Canada beleaguered by the anti-democratic and largely unaccountable activities of the federal Conservative government.

Secondly, it is important because Quebec – like Newfoundland and Labrador – is symbolic of a vision of post-secondary education which holds that is a public right, and for whom the ideal of European-style free post-secondary education is still a feasible, achievable target. This is in stark contrast to moves in the opposite direction by provinces like Ontario and Nova Scotia, where the goal and effect of governments has been to privatize the system, hand it over to corporate interests and keep education open only to a small and rich elite. In this struggle between two opposing ideals, Quebec is currently the front-line.

Opiate of the masses corporate government

Tuition fees are like the cocaine of public policy. It seems like a harmless idea at first – oh, let’s charge a couple hundred dollars a term. Then it becomes several hundred dollars. Then it becomes several thousand. It seemed like an easy quick fix at first – just a little more for students to pay, and such delightful fiscal relief for the government! Then the next year, it becomes impossible to not do it some more. And some more. And during the next election, all parties promise they’ll go clean and stop raising fees…and maybe they stay clean for a year, but then they can’t help but try a little fee increase. JUST to “keep up with inflation” (last year, fees rose an average of 4.3% in Canada, while inflation was only 2.7%).

Anyhow, the upshot is that pretty soon governments are stuck in a full-blown addiction, and only serious intervention – at a very painful cost to public dollars – will cure the addiction and get the post-secondary system back on track and in full health again.

Meanwhile, university education becomes less and less about learning and more and more about buying a degree. Relying on student fees instead of government grants means universities have to hire more administrators to coordinate fee collection and budget allocation. The government, suddenly addicted to cutbacks and convinced universities can make up the difference by raising fees, cuts back faster than universities are able to raise fees. Infrastructure starts crumbling; research facilities become outdated. Universities turn to private corporations to make up the difference. Non-corporate fields of study like humanities and social sciences get cut, and more bureaucrats are required to coordinate the corporate partnerships. Even those don’t make up the shortfalls, so universities need to start fancy fundraising efforts akin to those of political parties: cue in the call for more bureaucrats and administrators. Overworked and underpaid instructors – whose salaries have been cut to pay for the bureaucrats and administrators who are trying to fundraise to pay them the salaries that are sub-par – are simply unable to provide a decent quality of education, no matter how much they might want to try.
Eventually, if the trend is not reversed, your education system collapses.

Tuition fees are like the cocaine of public policy.

Ontario is well on the way to that grisly end. With the size of its population and the size of tuition fees, that province is hurtling toward a cliff which is getting closer and closer. If it doesn’t reverse course and reinvest an incredible amount of money it doesn’t have into post-secondary education, Ontario’s university system will collapse within the decade. It’s only a matter of time until grading for Ontario students is contracted out to call centres in India, faculty are required to take entire weeks or months without pay as has happened in California, and tens of thousands of students find their applications to university rejected not because of their grades, but because the universities have no room for additional students (who cannot pay astronomical fees to keep the university running). All these ideas have actually been talked about. In California, universities are abandoning recruitment of in-state students and concentrating instead on international students because they can charge them higher fees – and that’s the only way they can keep their institutes running.

Fortunately, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador reversed course on tuition fees early enough that their post-secondary systems are the healthiest and most accessible in the country. They’ve kept fees frozen or even lowered them. The government has provided adequate operating grants, to both students and institutions. This has ensured costs haven’t spiraled out of control like they have in every jurisdiction where tuition fees have been increased and students made to bear the cost of funding a significant portion of their university education. Our governments have invested heavily – because it’s one of the most important investments any society can make. They’ve done it in different ways, but the point is they’ve both done it.

Fortunately, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador reversed course on tuition fees early enough that their post-secondary systems are the healthiest and most accessible in the country.

Other provinces are stretched along a spectrum between these polar ends. Nova Scotia is pretty badly off too, as a result of years of some of the highest fees in the country. Even its new NDP government failed to kick the habit (they just keep it under better control than other governments have). Its students however have a solution of sorts much closer to home – they just go to Newfoundland and Labrador for their education.

It’s about political culture, too

It’s undeniable that there’s been a drastic decline in the quality of political leadership in North America: a lack of political leaders willing to call it like it is, think independently, shoulder accountability, and get the job done. In the absence of quality elected representatives, what we get are weak politicians who abandon their electoral platforms and promises, and instead do what they are pressured to do by those who finance their campaigns. Regardless of whether it makes sense or not. That is really the only explanation for why things happen like spending thousands of millions of dollars over-budget on jet fighters. Or building jails when the crime rate is dropping (and when this is pointed out, re-writing the law in order to make more things illegal and artificially put more people in jail). Or raising tuition fees.

Newfoundland and Labrador has been fortunate in having a string of independent-minded – if somewhat quirky – political leaders, ranging from Liberal premier Brian Tobin to Progressive Conservative premier Danny Williams. Even when the governing party changed, each new premier and cabinet reviewed the facts, looked at the figures, listened to the ideas and realized that lowering fees and maximizing accessibility of post-secondary was the only policy that made sense – so they maintained those policies despite outcries from the corporate administrators who wanted big salaries for fundraising just like their buddies in Ontario. Those governments built on each other’s efforts, and the result is we have easily the second-best – I would argue the best – post-secondary system in the country.

Newfoundland and Labrador has been fortunate in having a string of independent-minded – if somewhat quirky – political leaders…

Having worked in the student movement for a few years, I recall many a meeting with provincial ministers and bureaucrats. They would tell us quite candidly that although they were dedicated to accessible post-secondary education, they faced immense pressure from other provinces when they participated in meetings with their counterparts from around the country. Other provinces were angry – and fearful – about our province’s glowing record on accessible, affordable public post-secondary education. They pestered and pressured our provincial representatives incessantly to stop investing, and to raise fees instead. The representatives from other provinces were angry because it showed up the faulty logic and bad policy under which their own provincial systems operated. They were fearful because if word got out to the rest of the country, students and parents in other provinces might start demanding they follow our model. Fortunately, our political representatives have shrugged off the peer pressure and held the line on valuing post-secondary education as an accessible right and a public good.

Likewise, Quebec’s unique political and cultural environment has meant that political leaders there have had to be smart, rational, and accountable to the very engaged public that elects them. At least until now. Jean Charest made the mistake of listening to all those corporate administrators and politicians from other provinces who told him he could raise fees and nobody would really object – not very loudly and not for very long, at any rate. Without thinking, he let himself be lured into a public policy mistake of massive proportions.

Here in Newfoundland and Labrador we can’t afford to become over-confident or complacent.

It’s crucial that we raise awareness of what’s going on in Quebec – and even more importantly, that we show our support and solidarity for the brave, courageous and vitally important battle they’re waging. It is truly an irony that the future of what we consider to be Canadian values – universal, public, accessible rights like education – is in the hands of the students and people of Quebec, who are the ones fighting to defend them.

Here in Newfoundland and Labrador we can’t afford to become over-confident or complacent. We have a premier who has so far been afraid to challenge the federal government despite successive overt snubs. We have one sole Conservative MP who has so far proven unable to do anything but parrot back what his bosses in Ottawa tell him to parrot back. Our quality of leadership does not inspire the sort of confidence it once did. And we can’t afford not to worry about it.

Because if Quebec falls, then we’re next.

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