Quebec’s tuition-hike battle between striking students and the provincial government is now coming to a close, after making headlines across Canada and around the world. In an age of austerity, the government attempted to raise tuition fees to help offset education spending within its strained budget. The blowback was, as we now know, incredible. For nearly three months, post-secondary students boycotted classes, protested in the streets and occasionally resorted to violence.
The entire ordeal has raised a number of deep and troubling questions. Are these students legitimate protesters with real grievances, or out of touch, spoiled young people with no idea how good they have it? Do universities manage their finances wisely, or squander their funding and then lay the burden on the backs of students who can barely make ends meet? In the end, can either side really claim victory?
There are a lot of arguments for each side of the debate, and they’ve popped up frequently in the media. On one hand, people in this country (especially in Quebec) are incredibly fortunate when it comes to accessible higher education. Canada has some of the lowest tuition rates in the industrialized world (although some other nations offer completely free post-secondary education). Even if the tuition increase had gone through as the government originally intended, Quebec would still have the lowest tuition rates in Canada. As it stands, lowering incidental and/or ancillary fees by matching amounts, leaving no net increase, will offset the hike in tuition.
Now, contrast the situation to that of students in the United States. Although a Canadian student can expect to pay anywhere from $2,000 to $7000 or more for a year of postsecondary tuition, American undergraduates routinely pay in the tens of thousands of dollars per year. Far more than its northern neighbour, higher education in the United States is simply inaccessible to a large portion of the population. Considering the chronic disaster state of the U.S. government’s finances, it wouldn’t be surprising if the fees rose even higher. In light of this, and factoring in the deplorable moments of violence during the strike, it has been easy to lose sympathy with Quebec’s students. But the reasons and the anger that fuelled these protests run deep—and countless young Canadians can no doubt relate.
We grew up under the promise of secure, plentiful work as long as we were patient, studied and worked hard. It wouldn’t be easy and it wouldn’t be cheap, but the fountain of wealth and success that waited would more than make up for the struggle. Unlike much of the developing world, the democratic ideals of the West assured us that education and prosperity were always in our grasp; our society was set up to ensure this social contract would be fulfilled.
Yet, it’s turned out quite different for us. We are a generation entering a workforce that is strained to the seams and likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future. We’re living in an age of government cutbacks, older generations living (and thus working) longer, and ever-growing competition for fewer available jobs.
We’re forced to resort to unpaid internships or minimum wage jobs taken on just to pay down crippling debt loads. The anger expressed by Quebec’s striking students comes from that sense of being overeducated, underappreciated, and headed into a future of dim prospects. For a government, run by people who were able to take advantage of cheap tuition, now try to deny that advantage to others in the name of austerity feels like a slap in the face. Put bluntly, it feels like that social contract, that promise, has been broken.
In the end, the desires of the students and the government seem to have been resolved into an amicable if cool satisfaction for both sides—but the questions remain. Do the students take their circumstances, their relatively easy access to higher education, for granted? Some do, absolutely. The violent element of the protests has been rightly condemned—as usual, a tiny faction of the group has tarnished a much larger, peaceful movement. That being said, for all intents and purposes, the message at the heart of the protests rings true. Education should be accessible and affordable for all, not a privilege of the wealthy few. And it’s simply unfair for a government to try to make up for the financial mistakes of yesterday on the backs of today’s generation. All things said and done, I’m with the strikers.