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The Quebec Student Protest Movement and the Power of the Radical Imagination

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Posted on Aug 28, 2012
Andrew Morrell Photography (CC BY-ND 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

(Page 2)

Mainstream media consistently sided with the Quebec government, downplaying the significance of the tuition increases—even as they pertained to those students who could least afford them and for whom it would have the greatest impact. Critics of the strike repeatedly drew the public’s attention to the fact that, even with the increase, tuition fees in Quebec would remain among the lowest in Canada:  “Average undergraduate tuition in Canada for 2011-12 is $5,366, but ranges widely from province to province. Quebec has the lowest fees, followed closely by Newfoundland and Labrador. Ontario has the highest average tuition, at $6,640 a year.”[27] However, it soon became apparent that the students viewed the tuition increase as only one symptom of an ailing and unjust social order about which they could no longer be silent. The students preferred to speak for themselves rather than have others speak abstractly for them and about them, especially when it came to the material conditions of their own educations, their own futures. It is telling, and will remain telling, that government officials and newspaper pundits insistently responded with anxious indignation, as if wholly caught off guard by the simple fact that the students can speak—and speak intelligently, passionately, and urgently about the most pressing issues facing themselves and their society. In a reversal of roles familiar to anyone who actually works in a classroom, the student can also teach the teacher. The first lesson to be learned from striking students was that the protests were about much more than fee structures. Yet, the government seemed unwilling to assimilate tis pedagogical insight, and its heavy-handedness touched a nerve in the larger social body of Quebec, activating new forms of dissent and solidarity.

What quickly developed was a student strike of unprecedented proportions, involving more than 200,000 students and rallying many additional supporters for a mass demonstration on March 22, 2012.  As the strike progressed and expanded its base of support, over a quarter of a million joined the demonstrations on a number of occasions and an estimated half million people marched in Montreal on May 25, 2012. By July 2012, the Quebec student strike had emerged as not only “the longest and largest student strike in the history of North America,” but also “the biggest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.”[28] The student action, which began as a protest against the provincial government’s plan to increase tuition fees, has developed into a popular uprising with tens of thousands of post-secondary students and their supporters marching nightly in the streets of Quebec cities and in solidarity demonstrations across Canada.[29] Now a major broad-based opposition movement against neoliberal austerity measures, the Quebec student strike initiated one of the most powerful, collectively organized challenges to neoliberal ideology, policy, and governance that has occurred globally in some time.

The initial phase of the movement focused almost exclusively on higher educational reform. The issues addressed in the early stage of the protests included a rejection of the province’s call for a tuition increase, a sustained critique of the under-funding of post-secondary education, a critical interrogation of the perils facing a generation forced to live on credit and tied to the servitude of debt, and the opening up of a new conversation about the meaning and purpose of education—in particular, the kind of educational system that is free and removed from corporate influences, and whose mission is defined by its commitment to justice, equality, and support for the broader public good. 

Students rejected the tuition hike by arguing that the increase would not only force many working-class students to drop out but also prevent economically disadvantaged students from gaining access to higher education altogether. Expanding this critique, many young people spoke of the tuition increase as symbolic of repressive neoliberal austerity measures that forced them to pay more for their education, while offering them a diminished future of dismal job prospects when they graduated.  Situating the protest against tuition hikes within a broader critique of neoliberal austerity measures, students were then able to address the fee hikes as part of the growing burden of suffocating debt, government funding priorities that favor the financial and corporate elite, Harper’s ruinous transfer of public funds into an expanding military-industrial complex, and the imposition of corporate culture and corporate modes of governance on all aspects of daily life.

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By stressing a pervasive crisis of debt as an issue rather than focusing exclusively on tuition, students were able to highlight the darker registers of finance capital that increasingly foreclose any possibility of a better life for this generation and generations to come. Andrew Gavin Marshall has provided a theoretical service in highlighting the broader effects and politics of the debt crisis. He writes:

Total student debt now stands at about $20 billion in Canada ($15 billion from Federal Government loans programs, and the rest from provincial and commercial bank loans). In Quebec, the average student debt is $15,000, whereas Nova Scotia and Newfoundland have an average student debt of $35,000, British Columbia at nearly $30,000 and Ontario at nearly $27,000. Roughly 70% of new jobs in Canada require a post-secondary education. Half of students in their 20s live at home with their parents, including 73 per cent of those aged 20 to 24 and nearly a third of 25- to 29-year-olds. On average, a four-year degree for a student living at home in Canada costs $55,000, and those costs are expected to increase in coming years at a rate faster than inflation. It has been estimated that in 18 years, a four-year degree for Canadian students will cost $102,000. Defaults on government student loans are at roughly 14%. The Chairman of the Canadian Federation of Students warned in June of 2011 that, ‘We are on the verge of bankrupting a generation before they even enter the workplace.’ The notion, therefore, that Quebec students should not struggle against a bankrupt future is a bankrupted argument.[30]

Connecting student opposition to the tuition hike with the broader issue of expanding debt and the fact that “the average debt for [Canadian] university graduates is around $27,000” helped shift the focus of the strike—viewed by some critics as a narcissistic, collective temper tantrum by whiny students—to a much more public and broader set of considerations. In this instance, what was being indicted by the students calling for higher educational reforms, as Randy Boyagoda points out, was “a profound crisis of faith in the socioeconomic frameworks that have structured and advanced societies across North America and Europe since World War II [as well as] a rejection of the premise of the postwar liberal state:  that large-scale institutions and elected leaders are capable of creating opportunities for individual citizens to flourish.”[31]

Defending a Free and Democratic Post-Secondary Education System

The Quebec protesters made clear how rising tuition fees could be connected to the savage dictates of a debt machine that increases the profits of banks and other financial institutions. But they also went further and raised broader questions about what kind of university system would support such measures. In doing so, they have called into question the increasing corporatization of the university with its market-oriented view of governance, its valuing of research in instrumentalized market terms, its substitution of training for broad-based education, and its view of higher education as a commercial entity.

Writing about the Quebec strike, Malav Kanuga states, “For the students there has been a growing sense of urgency and a shared recognition that increased tuition means a heavier student debt burden, hundreds of more hours a year spent working instead of studying, less access for working-class students, and a shift in university culture toward the market, the commodification of education, the financialization of student life, and the privatization of the university.”[32] But the student activists have not simply denounced the university’s role in the reproduction of neoliberal values, gated communities for the affluent, and the engines of social and economic inequality. Student protesters have also strongly argued for a wholesale transformation of higher education in terms of both its mission and how it is funded. Moving from “the crisis of negation” to a project of transformation, the protesters have argued for higher education to be not only free and accessible to all students, but also dedicated to the role of educating students to take intellectual risks, think imaginatively, and assume the social responsibilities of critically engaged citizens.[33]

The Quebec student protesters are correct in their demand that Canadian society needs a wholesale revision of how educational institutions and democracies in general listen to and treat young people in a world in which their voices, needs, desires, and growing hardships have been excluded from a public space of articulation. The students have passionately rejected the neoliberal view of higher education as an economic investment unapologetically designed to turn students into consumers and the university into a profit-making entity. They have been strongly critical of neoliberal modes of governance which impose a top-down business culture on faculty, demanding that they assume the role of entrepreneurs rather than autonomous and critically engaged teachers and scholars. In addition, they have rejected the restructuring of academic departments into revenue production units and classrooms into training grounds that mimic the business culture of call centers and Wal-Mart.  Presenting an alternative to the neoliberal model, Quebec students have argued for higher education as a democratic public sphere that does more than provide private returns for individuals and institute policies that aim to banish forever the “horrors” of teaching students to question authority. They have demanded the kind of education that takes seriously the impending challenges of a global democracy and will enable them to mediate the world in terms of democratic rather than commercial values.

More and more young people are insisting that the real value of higher education lies in its capacity to offer everyone the opportunity to receive a free, quality education and live in an educated society. Both of which are crucial for creating genuine social security, critical agents and the formative culture necessary for a democracy to thrive. In developing their critique, the protesters have resurrected “the ideal of free post-secondary education—recommended in the 1960s by a famous state-commissioned inquiry, but long since snuffed out among the economic elite.”[34]  They have made clear the political and moral fault lines between those who believe that education is a “commodity purchased by ‘consumers’ for self-advancement, and those who would protect it as a right funded by the state for the collective good”—and, in doing so, they have “sparked a fundamental debate about the entire society’s future.”[35]

Funding the Neoliberal State

Clearly there is more at stake in the Quebec protest movement than a concern over tuition hikes and skyrocketing student debt. A disquieting narrative about the future of young people entering adult life has been extended to the troubling reality of a broader social system that increasingly places its political allegiances, social investments, and economic support in the service of rich and powerful financial institutions while eviscerating the social state and the public treasury.  As Martin Lukacs insists, one achievement of the Quebec protest movement has been:

to clarify for a broad swath of society that a tuition hike is not a matter of isolated accounting, but the goal of a neoliberal austerity agenda the world over. Forcing students to pay more for education is part of a transfer of wealth from the poor and middle class to the rich—as with privatization and the state’s withdrawal from service provision, tax breaks for corporations, and deep cuts to social programs.[36]

The hidden order of politics at the center of neoliberal austerity measures is difficult to miss and helps explain the misplaced priorities of a Quebec government that in 2006-2007 provided $437 million for funding private schools—funds that, as Erika Shaker points out, “would pay for a fee freeze at Quebec universities and have money left over for bursaries for low-income students [while] the remainder could be redirected towards public schools.”[37] Shaker suggests that this transfer of funds “demonstrate[s] that when public money is used to facilitate private access, it’s the public infrastructure and the people accessing it who pay the price.”[38] The defunding of the social state and higher education and the increasing attack on the social contract are also evident in the Canadian state’s willingness in the latter half of the 1990s “to reduce by 50% the federal transfers to the provinces for post-secondary education [which has amounted] to a loss of income of $800 million per year for Quebec.”[39] Federal funds that could be used for investing in higher education have instead been reallocated in keeping with the conservative government’s tough-on-crime agenda and either squandered on prison expansion or diverted into a growing Canadian military budget. 


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