Thursday, May 31, 2012

I wish I had their courage and conviction

I thought I had weighed in on the topic, but a quick search demonstrates that I have not. So here goes.

I fully and completely support the students who are protesting the raising of tuition fees in Quebec. This is not about entitlement. It's not about the economy. It's about a long standing principle in Quebec. It's about universal accessibility.

If you read your history, you will know that tuition fees in Quebec have been frozen at very low rates for long periods of time. $540 per year from 1968 to 1990, $1668 per year from 1990 to 2007 and an increase of $100 per year until 2012, making it $2168. The plan is to increase the tuition over the course of 5 years to $3793 by 2017.

Now, this still puts Quebec University tuition less than half of other parts of Canada. So naturally, many people argue that Quebec students should suck it up and got on with their lives. Their response has always been that it's not about the cost. It's about the values that Quebec has always held dear regarding affordable education. A value that is (apparently) less important in other parts of the country. Students understand that as long as education was being funded by government, any inefficiencies would be policed and managed by that same government. If students take on more of the cost directly, the power to manage inefficiencies in the education system is lost, because students have much less power to force the system to improve. This has also always been about keeping post-secondary education affordable. A $1668 tuition makes education available to many more people than $3793. Precedent is set too. That fee is surely to go up after 2017. So what this is doing is privatizing education costs by allowing governments to pay less and students to pay more. Don't let anyone tell you that tuition is going up because the education system is broke, because it's just not true. Government is trying to cut costs and instead of telling schools that they have to get more efficient, they're just sloughing it off onto the student.

You might argue that the students didn't exactly ingratiate themselves to either the government or the public by behaving the way they did during the protests, but one could argue that hooligans managed to ruin it for the polite, non-violent protesters, as happens during most organized protests.

But the government went too far in trying to deal with the students when they passed Bill 78. The Bill, among other things, restricts freedom of assembly near universities, restricts freedom of assembly ANYWHERE in Quebec without prior police approval, and restricts education employees from striking. That did not sit well with a populace that cherishes its right to protest as a basic human right. It resulted in both the largest Canadian act of civil disobedience (300,000-400,000 people) on 22 May 2012, and an almost nightly ritual by supporters of the students called Casseroles, where protesters bang pots and pans at 8pm to demonstrate their disapproval of Bill 78 (see this video). The students have launched a legal challenge of the Bill as well.

I have always felt that we do our citizens a great dis-service by making higher education so expensive in this country. We ask for students to pay for their education up front, something many cannot afford and places a huge debt burden on them for many years to come. Quebecers believe that it's more reasonable and practical to let society pay for education en masse, which motivates more of the population to educate themselves and benefits society as a whole by raising the professional bar of its citizens. You get more doctors and lawyers and other professional when education is more accessible. That in turn earns the government more revenue in taxes, which helps perpetuate the concept. Newfoundland is looking at eliminating tuition altogether. I believe this is the right move and Quebec and other provinces could be doing their citizens a huge favour by exploring this concept as well. Incidentally, the UK once had no tuition. Then a £1000 tuition was introduced. Now it's £9000.

The symbolic moment in that wonderful video comes at the 3:35 mark. That's where the sole student walking down the street is followed by the shadows of dozens of people - his supporters, both in spirit and in reality.

No comments: