University and CEGEP students are furiously gearing up for a public protest on Nov. 10 against a tuition hike of $1,625 over five years. Why should the public care about these student protests, and what are they really about?
Quebec Finance Minister Raymond Bachand introduced the tuition hike as part of his 2011-12 provincial budget. It was time for the provincial government to slay the “sacred cows” of Quebec’s society, Bachand argued. These sacred cows apparently include accessible health care, hydroelectricity and education. In 2010, a widely unpopular $200 health tax that affects most citizens of the province was introduced. Electricity costs are rising – and then there’s the tuition increase of $325 a year over five years.
In attempting to slay these “sacred cows,” the Liberal government is essentially seeking to completely alter the social fabric of the province. “To control its choices and destiny,” minister Bachand said in introducing the budget, “a people must control its public finances.”
This is the context in which the student movement is emerging. Early provincial estimates suggest that university enrolment may drop by 2.5 per cent once the tuition hike is introduced. In other words, thousands of people are being denied a university education because of the hike. And that’s not to mention the increased financial distress on students who choose to strive for a university degree.
But many students are not fighting solely against these tuition hikes. As the provincial government continues to attack the “sacred cows” of health care and education, students are really fighting to enhance basic principles of equality and fairness. At minimum, most students want to see the sacred cows fed rather than slaughtered.
In Quebec, the foul whiff of corruption and a widely unpopular budget have made Premier Jean Charest extremely unpopular. In mid-August, an Angus Reid poll found that his approval rating was 30 per cent, the lowest of any provincial leader in Canada.
Much of this support appears to be going to the right-wing Coalition pour l’avenir du Québec, led by former Parti Québécois cabinet minister François Legault. The coalition has already tapped into ugly nationalist sentiments by calling for a curb to immigration, saying immigrants are not integrating well or quickly enough into Quebec society. Politics are taking an ugly turn as the province gears up for an election likely to take place in 2012.
The emerging student movement is not a group of self-interested revellers, as they are so often portrayed. The movement is expressing discontent with the current state of affairs, not only here in Quebec, but globally. And this is in keeping with the history of the student movement. Students played a major role in the civil-rights and antiwar movements of the past, as they continue to do in matters of environmental and economic justice today.
One would hope that the public will engage with the student movement, sharing ideas and action. To neglect or dismiss student voices is a grave error. Bachand’s words should be taken seriously: it’s time for the public to control its choices and future.
In this spirit, individuals and groups are highly encouraged to participate in the Nov. 10 rally at 2 p.m. outside the Berri-UQÀM métro station.