Dr. Dawg

Framing the Quebec student strike

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Why should university students pay tuition?

Students in Quebec continue on strike for the twelfth week, against the Charest Liberal government’s plan to increase current by 82%. In the face of these protests, Charest has offered to spread the increases over seven years instead of the original five. He threw in some more bursary money and loans as well.

About 165,000 students are out. Here is a capsule description of their leadership.

True to form, the mainstream media folks are bleating about spoiled brats, an alleged entitlement mentality, and the comparatively low tuition in comparison with other provinces.

Editorialists and commentators moan about student violence, while barely a word can be found condemning the massive police provocation that has led to it. Cops in Quebec are notoriously violent: beating up on students has been a bit of a hobby for them for a while now. During the current protests, they’ve been at it again, assaulting demonstrators, mistreating sympathetic professors, and indulging in that illegal forcible confinement technique known as “kettling.”

If the events a few years ago in Montebello are any guide, they have no doubt seeded the protests with agents provocateurs as well.

And not all students are onside—here’s one smug fellow’s account of it all for counterpoint. Scroll down to see who his last boss was.

But the question I asked at the start is never addressed by the chattering classes. Andrew Coyne suggests that a system of quasi-indentured servitude might be the answer to rising tuition costs and massive debt:

Students, especially in undergraduate programs, still pay a fraction of the cost of their education, though they tend to come from wealthier-than-average families and though the cost of their education, as every study shows, will be repaid many times over in the higher earnings they will enjoy.

That argues pretty strongly that students should pay a greater share of the tab. Indeed, I’d argue they should pay all of it.

…What if, instead of paying tuition now, students could pay it later? That is, what if they were staked all or most of the money up front, and repaid it over the course of their working life? Only what if, instead of repaying principal plus interest in fixed amounts, as with conventional loans, they paid a share of their earnings? As they earned more, they’d pay more; as they earned less, they’d pay less.

Why stop there? Why is secondary school free? Why is primary school? Shouldn’t the same arguments apply?

But of course that question was settled a long time ago. People came to the conclusion that education was a social investment, equipping the next generation to carry on building the country, contributing to the economy and to society, and thereby strengthening our social coherence and our civic institutions.

Why should the tertiary level of education be any different? Indeed, it is precisely at that point that the specialized knowledge and skills required in an increasingly complex globally-interconnected society are imparted. Students graduate with the potential of making a significant contribution to their country and to the world. And yet, trapped in a swamp of conservative bromides and stereotypes, we insist that this should be an individual responsibility, that people should pay their own way, that students who say different are spoiled, well-off entitlement freaks, and that the next generation should be forced to pay dearly for the “privilege” of making that contribution.

Other industrialized democracies see things differently. Free or next-to-free tertiary education is common in Europe—in countries like France, Sweden, Greece, Ireland, Finland, Italy, Portugal and Spain, to name a few, if you meet the qualifications you get in, rich or poor, and you graduate unsaddled by massive debt that in Canada takes years to pay off.

This “Quebec Spring” is not about kids wanting something for nothing. It’s about two conflicting visions of education—and of society. On one hand, there are those who see it as just another luxury consumer item, like a fancy car or an expensive meal. For such people, if you want it, then you can damn well pay for it. On the other are the students and their sympathizers who recognize that education is a collective responsibility, and that its outcomes enrich us all.

The Quebec walkout is looking more and more like a social strike, as the latter vision comes into focus and questions about the running of society as a whole are starting to be raised. All of the traditional forces are arrayed against this dissent, as usual: the Quebec government, the police, and the ever-biddable corporate media in that province and in the rest of Canada.

Those are formidable antagonists, acting in lockstep, and the outcome of this protest is far from certain. Much will depend upon the allies the students are able to attract among labour and its social partners. Are we seeing the beginning of something like the BC popular uprising of 1983, but this time, perhaps, with the appropriate lessons learned?

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on April 29, 2012 11:22 AM.

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