Photo by Marc Bonhomme
Tens of thousands of students and their supporters marched in major Quebec cities yesterday, March 18, in opposition to the Charest government’s promise to impose a 75% increase in post-secondary education fees over the next five years. In Montréal some 30,000 “former, present and future university students” responded to the call of the Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (CLASSE). The march stretched for more than 1.5 kilometres, according to Le Devoir. Thousands more marched in Quebec City, Sherbrooke and Alma.
This week, more than 200,000 university and college students will be striking throughout Quebec, and their ranks continue to swell. The strike began four weeks ago on some campuses. While the main demand is of course to stop the proposed hike in fees, many of the students support the demand of the CLASSE, which is spearheading the strike movement, for free post-secondary education.
This message — that education is an integral right of Quebec society, and must be accessible to all — has struck a responsive chord among broad layers of the population. In recent days, the students’ demands have inspired strong messages of solidarity from their professors, more than 1,600 of whom have signed a powerful statement against neoliberal “commodification” of education and the privatization of university funding. (The professors’ statement is translated, below.)
Thousands of parents are now organizing through Facebook in support of the students, and many participated with their children in the marches yesterday. High school students are joining in, with strikes planned in several schools this week. The major trade-union centrals have issued calls for solidarity with the striking students.
The government continues to stonewall the student demands, and Finance Minister Raymond Bachand is expected to confirm the increase in his budget speech tomorrow. The increase will boost student fees by $325 a year for five years. Yesterday’s demonstrations were a prelude to even bigger student protests planned for March 22. And the organizers are already planning further actions in weeks ahead.
In recent weeks, student demonstrators have faced violent attacks by police using tear gas, sound percussion guns and rubber bullets, and hundreds have been arrested. In one such attack, a Montréal student was hit in the face and may lose sight in one eye. But this repression has, if anything, aroused mass indignation and public expressions of support for the students.
As the business media never cease to remind us, Quebec university fees are the lowest in Canada. But that is because Quebec students have mobilized repeatedly against attempts to raise them. As Chantal Sundaram notes in Socialist Worker:
“From 1968 to 1990, tuition fees in Quebec were frozen at $500 a year. After a hike of about 150 per cent from 1990 to 1993, a PQ government introduced a new freeze in 1994. But that same government opened the door to a new increase in the name of deficit cutting in 1996. It faced a Quebec-wide student strike with mass street protests and gave up that idea. Fees have also increased by $100 a year over the past five years under the Charest government.
“Today’s strike comes only seven years after the last one. In 2005, an unlimited student strike shut down nearly every post-secondary institution in Quebec to protest the cutting of $103 million from bursaries to convert them into loans. The students won, forcing the government to backtrack on a policy it had already passed. That strike received massive public support and was the source of the ‘red square’ badge, worn by thousands of students and supporters, which is also in use today.”
The strike has been organized faculty by faculty through mass assemblies and democratic votes of the students; it began in mid-February when the CLASSE threshold of a pro-strike vote of 20,000 students in at least seven student unions was met. At first, Education Minister Line Beauchamp dismissed it, claiming the movement represented only 2% of the province’s 495,000 post-secondary students. But already move than 40% of the total student population are on strike.
And now other student organizations, traditionally less militant than the CLASSE, are planning their own actions to protest the fee increase. For example, the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec (FECQ) has announced it will hold a sit-in at the National Assembly on March 20 when the finance minister tables his budget.
The 2005 student strike ended with serious divisions in the movement; the CLASSE predecessor was sidelined and in the end the government negotiated only with the FECQ and a rival organization, the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ). At the outset of this year’s strike movement, the CLASSE had only 40,000 members, while the FEUQ boasted 125,000 and the FECQ 80,000. However, the relationship of forces within the student population may be changing rapidly in the current mobilizations.
“There is something in the air,” 21-year-old CLASSE leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois told Le Devoir. “There is momentum. The Arab Spring, the indignés, the Occupy movement…. There is an entire discourse being advanced about the interests the governments serve. They do not work for the majority. And the question of the increased education fees is a stunning demonstration of this.”
According to another CLASSE spokesperson, Jeanne Reynolds, “It is a whole vision of education that is changing. That’s why people are mobilizing so much.”
And indeed, an important feature of the movement is the attractive appeal of the CLASSE demand not only for a freeze on fees, but for free university education as a right of society. Other organizations have advanced similar demands for treating social services as a public right, not an opportunity for private profit. In a statement coinciding with yesterday’s marches, the Coalition opposée à la tarification et à la privatisation des services publics called for public participation in the students’ actions and opposition to the Charest government’s increase in electricity rates and its tax on medicare services. “Although the Charest government is so far showing its rigidity, it is our impression that the relationship of forces is increasingly in the students’ camp,” Coalition spokesman François Saillant told the media. Saillant is also a leading member of Québec solidaire, Quebec’s party of the left.
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‘We are all students.’ Quebec profs issue call
for unlimited general strike of campuses
This appeal by Quebec post-secondary teachers, signed initially by 21 professors, has now been signed by more than 1,600 others in support of their students.
As professors who strive to bequeath knowledge to all those who seek an education, we support the students striking in democratic defense of accessibility to university education and in justified opposition to the commodification of education. We say to these student youth who are standing firm that they are not alone.
Beyond the legitimate demands linked to the precariousness of student status, it is the future of education and Quebec society that is at stake in the conflict between the students and the government. This strike is an extension of the numerous struggles that have emerged in recent years challenging the subordination of the public good to private interests with the help of a scandalously obliging government.
An increase that impoverishes education
The most immediate issue in the current conflict is of course the increase in education fees. This 75% increase, we note, follows the 30% increase imposed since 2008. These increases are draconian, and they fit within a logic of privatization of the funding of our public services. Among its most obvious consequences, we can anticipate a substantial increase in student indebtedness, as we see in the rest of Canada and in the Anglo-Saxon world as a whole, as well as a significant decrease in accessibility to education.
This privatization of university funding, based on a neoliberal premise, treats students as customers. To profit from their investment, they will be tempted to choose their area of study in terms of its financial yield and potential for employment. The logic of indebtedness regiments the students de facto in the world of finance, and subordinates their decisions to the bankers. The student thereby becomes an agent of reproduction of the social order, instead of a citizen participating fully in the evolution of his or her society. Academic freedom and the entire critical dimension of university education would appear to be threatened with obsolescence.
The discourse of the Liberals, the ADQ/CAQistes and the university administrations claims that the increase will help solve the problem of “under-funding” of Quebec universities. But we should instead be talking about “malfunding,” considering the huge transfer of funds once devoted to education and basic research to investments in real estate, private research, advertising and the financing of a powerful bureaucracy. In this sense, the central issue is less the under-funding than what we choose to fund in our universities. To what degree are we prepared to sacrifice courses considered unprofitable, to reduce accessibility to studies in order to feed the endless appetite of the boards of directors?
From one revolution to another
Underlying the debate over the increase in education fees is a conflict between different models of education. Finance Minister Raymond Bachand evokes a “cultural revolution” when he attacks the achievements of the Quiet Revolution by returning education fees to what they were prior to 1968, when the university was essentially reserved to a male elite. The creation of a more egalitarian system of education, such as we enjoyed until the 1990s, was the end result of a broad collective debate expressed, for example, through the Parent Commission and the vitality of the student movement of that time.
We note today that the conservative revolution being implemented by the Liberal government is not the product of any debate and is presented to us as an inevitability. Symptomatic in this regard is the Agreement to lift the lid on student fees (Pacte sur le dégel des droits de scolarité) announced in 2010. It was based on a sham consensus featuring the representatives of the Chamber of Commerce, the Conseil du Patronat and neoliberal think tanks (IEDM, CIRANO), organized of course under the leadership of the bard of the lucides, Lucien Bouchard himself. The denial of any form of opposition or dialogue opened the way to Raymond Bachand’s budgets, just as the injunctions of the “banksters” [English in original] have imposed austerity policies here and elsewhere in the world.
As a result, we have to consider the student movement and its demands as a voice of resistance. For several years now, the students have been presenting an intelligent analysis of the issues related to post-secondary education, and calling for a public debate, a débat de société on the future of education. This demand has been met by a dogmatic refusal to open the dialogue and recognize the students as legitimate interlocutors. This stiff resistance explains the fact that the debate is now being expressed in the streets. The violent police repression of the students is the material expression of the contempt for those who struggle, often imaginatively, to defend what they know is precious to each of us: education as a public good.
Everyone united against the increase
Considering that the increase in education fees masks an ongoing privatization of funding of the universities, that it challenges universality as a model of accessibility to post-secondary studies, and that it furthers the transformation of institutions of learning into mere market organizations, we think the unlimited general strike is a justified method in the circumstances and that the students’ demands for a freeze on student fees and free education are legitimate.
The students are inviting us to build a new political way of thinking (imaginaire) that can revive the democratic and modern foundations of the educational system and of Quebec society as a whole. Within this perspective, we greet their call to general mobilization as an invitation to defend the right not only to higher education but also to the civilizing implications of the university. As professors, we respond: We are all students!
Benoit Guilmain, Collège Édouard-Montpetit; Anne-Marie Le Saux, Collège de Maisonneuve; Stéphane Thellen, Cégep du Vieux Montréal
Normand Baillargeon, Université du Québec à Montréal; Mario Beauchemin, Président de la FEC-CSQ; Claire Fortier, Collège Édouard-Montpetit; Isabelle Fortier, École nationale d’administration publique; Gilles Gagné, Université Laval; Frédéric Julien, Collège Édouard-Montpetit; Anna Kruzynski, Université Concordia; Benoit Lacoursière, Collège de Maisonneuve; Diane Lamoureux, Université Laval; Georges Leroux, Université du Québec à Montréal; Karim-Mathieu Lapierre, Cégep de St-Jérôme; Michèle Nevert, Université du Québec à Montréal, présidente du SPUQ; Jacques Pelletier, Université du Québec à Montréal; Martin Petitclerc, Université du Québec à Montréal; Guy Rocher, Université de Montréal; Cécile Sabourin, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières; Jean Trudelle, Collège Ahuntsic, président de la FNEEQ-CSN; Louise Vandelac, Université du Québec à Montréal
 An English translation: “Broad coalition of the Association for student union solidarity.”
 In English, Coalition against fee-for-service and the privatization of public services.
 A reference to the Coalition Avenir Québec, a new right-wing party led by François Legault, a former Parti Québécois minister. The CAQ recently absorbed the right-wing Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ).
 The report of the Parent Commission in the early 1960s launched a far-reaching educational reform that ended church control of education and led to the founding of a province-wide network of public universities and community colleges.
 Bourchard, a former Parti Québécois premier, authored a right-wing manifesto a decade ago that was issued by prominent right-wing ideologues who called themselves “lucides,” the clear-eyed realists. It provoked the publication of an alternative manifesto from leading progressives who called themselves the “solidaires,” those promoting solidarity of the oppressed and exploited. The name was subsequently adopted by Québec solidaire.