There can be no doubt that yesterday’s student protests in Quebec – which included a crowd estimated at between 100,000 and 200,000 in downtown Montreal – were an enormous success for student organizers and for the students who participated (see some photos here). The protests were essentially peaceful and, well, huge. Many commentators have observed that the reason tuition fees in Quebec remain far below the Canadian average is precisely because each time the government plans to raise them, students hit the streets en masse.
For those not up to speed on the current debate, the Quebec government announced last year, and confirmed recently in its budget speech, that it will proceed this fall to raise tuition fees by $325 a year for the next five years. As a result, tuition fees in Quebec will reach about $3,800 a year by 2017. That is still about 30 percent below the current national average.
The student protests – I won’t call them a “strike,” since technically the students aren’t withholding their labour – present a tricky situation for Quebec’s universities. The Conference of Rectors and Principals of Quebec Universities, or CREPUQ, supports the tuition hikes in principle.
Three of Montreal’s four universities (Université de Montréal, Université du Québec à Montréal and Concordia University) cancelled all classes yesterday (March 22, the day of the protests). Both Concordia and UQAM also shut down their campuses “for security reasons.” However, Concordia remarked on its website, “This closure is not an endorsement of student protest action regarding planned increases in tuition fees.” Similarly, U de Montréal noted that it “in no way endorses the protestors’ claims or their actions” (my translation). McGill University was the only one of the four to hold classes as scheduled.
Most of the regional universities that make up the Université du Quebec network also cancelled classes. The rector of Université du Québec à Rimouski, Michel Ringuet, called for mediation between the Quebec government and the student unions, but the government flatly rejected the idea. “We’re not in a process of negotiation or mediation,” said a spokesperson for the education minister, Line Beauchamp. “The government will proceed with the tuition fee hikes, with the aim of improving the quality of our universities” (my translation).
The big question is what universities will do if students continue to boycott their classes. All universities plan to continue with regularly scheduled classes and exams starting today or Monday. Will universities make arrangements for student boycotters to make up their missed classes sometime later, or will they let them fail? It definitely puts the universities in a bind.
There is also the open question of how much support the students have among the general public. Judging from the comments sections of the Quebec media, the public is generally not in a generous mood towards the students. A poll published in today’s Journal de Montreal shows 49 percent of respondents feel the tuition hikes are appropriate while 40 percent say they’re too high (eight percent said the tuition hikes aren’t high enough). As well, 53 percent of respondents say they are “more favourable” to the government’s position, against 39 percent who say they’re more favourable to the students’ position.
Another poll, this one commissioned by the student group Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec, found that 78 percent of respondents want the government to negotiate with the students. Nevertheless, the poll also found a slim majority (51 percent) in favour of the tuition hikes.
My own thoughts? Well, as many student leaders have said, it’s a choix de société – meaning it’s up to Quebecers to decide. My observation is that Quebec has the highest per capita debt in Canada and the highest personal taxes. Money is tight. If the tuition hikes don’t go ahead and universities require additional funding from the government, what other sector will have to do with less? Health care? K-12 education? Daycares? Seniors’ assistance? Public transit?
It’s their choice.