What Should You Know About the Quebec Student Strikes and Occupations?

[I'm moving blogs - check out the Next New Deal Rortybomb blog, here is the new rss feed, and here is this post over at the new site. I move over entirely Wednesday, and will cross post until then.]

One thing to remember about Occupy is that it has much of its current origins, successes and most intense interactions with authority around the spaces of college campuses.  Activism here is particularly innovative when it comes to direct actions, occupations and student strikes, all to combat college tuition increases, privatization and the creation of student debt markets.  Here’s the wikipedia entry on the Puerto Rico student strikes, where they were protesting massive waves of layoffs of government workers, campus faculty and an estimated 100% tuition hike.  Here’s the wikipedia entry on the Chilean student strikes.  These protests date back to 2006, where students fought high application fees they couldn’t afford.  And, of course, there’s what is going on at University of California, with the pepper-spray at Davis and the beatings both in 2009 and 2011 at Berkeley.

But the most interesting resistance happening right now is going on in Quebec, Canada.  There are, according to one representative report, over 165,000 students on strike from class out of a 495,000 student body.

Quebec is looking to increase their tuition 75% over the next several years; students responded by starting what is now the longest strike in the province’s history.  It’s gone on even though the government has offered to make student loans a nicer, kinder form of debt, with income-contingent repayments while not budging on the tuition hikes.

Here’s an image by Tina Mailhot-Roberge showing tens of thousands of people marching through Montreal on March 22nd, 2012:

Here’s an amazing video of two and a half hours of the protest time-lapsed down into 50 seconds on youtube.  And here, with a h/t to The Nation, here’s the Real News Network’s coverage of the protests.

The strike is heading into a dangerous time.  The administration isn’t looking to budge on tuition and students are approaching the point where they won’t complete the semester.  This will be worth watching in the weeks ahead.

Why are these sites so potent for activism?  The campus combines several issues into one – the privatization of public services, the dismembering of social insurance and its replacement with a regime of debt and risk-shifting, the dismantling of the primary means of social mobility with one designed to entrench inequality, which all builds towards a lack of freedom to fully develop ones talents and abilities and be full, productive citizens.

These students are right to fight this battle at the beginning, during the initials cuts.  Privatization creates its own justification; the more public universities are defunded and reconceived as a private good, the less civic interest there is in defending them as a public good.  And they are also fighting at the beginning of their lives, both for what kind of world they want to live in while resisting the constraints of indenture that we see when this process of privatization and debt reaches its ultimate conclusion – a path the United States is much further along.

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10 Responses to What Should You Know About the Quebec Student Strikes and Occupations?

  1. I thought the issue in Quebec was about letting fees rise, not cutting direct state subsidies, which would make references to “defunding” and “cuts” off target. Looking at the info from “stop the hike,” it seems that the government is committed to increasing funding, though not as much as students want: “Finally, the government plans on increasing its net contribution (after inflation of system costs) by $224 million between now and 2016-2017. This represents a 7.2% increase in governmental contribution. In absolute terms, this increase is 35% less than that demanded of students.” (from : http://www.stopthehike.ca/)

    Beyond that factual point, I have doubts about the egalitarian credentials of low cost university. Not everyone does, wants to, or will attend university, but a university degree does generally bring a large private benefit. No doubt it has public benefits too – and I do not doubt that equal opportunity to attend university is tremendously important. But is “low-cost for everyone” or “free for everyone” the means to achieve equality opportunity? One might say “if it’s cheap then everyone has the chance to attend, and if they choose not to, and so don’t get the benefit that’s their choice.” However, cost is only one factor determining access to higher education. Even if university were free, the middle and upper classes would be overrepresented in the ranks of higher education, due to the importance of parental education, family and neighbourhood environment, variations in primary and high school quality, etc. Of course these shortfalls from Rawlsian fair equality of opportunity” are wrong, but given that they exist, they raise doubts in my mind about the fairness of the idea that those who don’t attend university simply choose not to go, and so can’t complain about not receiving the general subsidy. And if these non-financial factors influencing access to higher education are powerful, then general subsidies for university will not be an effective means of achieving equal opportunity generally (even if funded by a heavily progressive tax system) – as compared to targeted subsidies, e.g. for those who can’t afford it, for those whose parents didn’t go to university, etc. I’m sure there are political feasibility arguments against targeting, but I am mainly interested in arguments of principle, setting aside (for the moment) questions about what policies can be stably supported by plausible coalitions of interests.

    By the way, I attended McGill in the 80s and benefitted from very cheap and very high quality education back then, so I am wide open to criticisms of hypocrisy.

    Still, what do you make of the idea that our long term goal should be free higher education, as argued here, on the grounds that higher education is a right?

    http://www.stopthehike.ca/tout-sur-la-hausse-des-frais/la-gratuite-scolaire-est-ce-possible/

    “The ongoing struggle against rising costs is only a first step towards free education, which is itself a step towards a more egalitarian society, solidarity and justice. Imagining a better society is the first step in fighting for it.”

    Free education for all, ok. ; but free higher education, attributed on the basis of academic achievement, which is heavily influenced by family background etc.?

  2. IT’s my first time to be here and the time lapse video is absolutely something to watch. I just hope the protests don’t get violent in the next few days.

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  5. mark t says:

    “The campus combines several issues into one – the privatization of public services, the dismembering of social insurance and its replacement with a regime of debt and risk-shifting, the dismantling of the primary means of social mobility with one designed to entrench inequality, which all builds towards a lack of freedom to fully develop ones talents and abilities and be full, productive citizens.”

    I think it’s just about having to pay more for what you expect to receive.

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  7. ambzone says:

    John, it will get more protracted, and possibly violent, or it will fail. The current leadership cadre in Québec both in government and the administration is childishly unwilling to negotiate with the student organizations. and is being hysterical about the strikers “choosing disruption”. The last few years of corruption scandals have seen them lose all remaining credibility with the informed public.

  8. Pat G says:

    It is a little disingenuous to present a key fact in this story by simply saying: “Quebec is looking to increase their tuition 75% over the next several years.” Of course the natural reaction of readers to a line like that is going to be “gosh, that does seem like a lot.”

    For the benefit of readers who are unfamiliar with how much university tuition costs in Quebec: in 2007 it was about $1,600. You read that right. And it was about the same more than a decade ago.

    What the provincial government is calling for is a $300/year increase until 2017 when it will reach about $3800: still less than what students in most other provinces pay currently…and a bargain compared to the king’s ransom in the US.

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  10. t says:

    I’m pretty late to the game on this but something you wrote is pretty common among leftwing commentators and has always confused me.

    You said: “Why are these sites so potent for activism? The campus combines several issues into one – the privatization of public services, the dismembering of social insurance and its replacement with a regime of debt and risk-shifting, the dismantling of the primary means of social mobility with one designed to entrench inequality, which all builds towards a lack of freedom to fully develop ones talents and abilities and be full, productive citizens.”

    Could be. But isn’t this happening everywhere? The slashing of social services, the slow reintroduction of debt peonage, and the hardening of the classes are part of broader change in society. We all know the history of the past thirty years. It isn’t necessary to recount it. Meanwhile the lack of freedom and the inability to develop one’s own life is normal for most people in service or other low wage work. I imagine even the wealthy feel this way from time to time. Yet, your question remains: why? Could it be that the reason universities have always been hotbeds of radicalism is because students themselves, while facing mounting obstacles as you point out, are still relatively freer than most other segments of society? For most students schooling is their primary occupation, they’re young and therefore more likely to hit the streets on a whim, and for many of them this is college is the first time they encounter radical ideas, whether from professors or other students. The reason there aren’t mass demonstrations from all the citizenry probably has to do with the greater degree of rigidity in their personal lives as opposed to the liberty universities provide

    In simpler terms, it’s hard to take off work but easy to skip class.

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