For Student Protesters in Quebec, It's About More Than Tuition

| 6/6/2012 1:09:45 PM

Montreal May 22 1012

Creative Commons Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education 

Thousands of Quebec's university students have been protesting for the past three months. Why? Apparently, because of the government's plans for a $1,625 rise in tuition over five years, which will result in annual tuition of about $3,800 by 2017. In other words, at the far end of these increases, Quebec students will still be paying less for their education than their peers elsewhere in Canada, and far less than most American college students.

On the basis of these numbers alone, it's hard to sympathize with the students' putative plight, let alone condone the protracted, frequently violent protests that it has provoked. The protests have included the smoke-bombing of Montreal's subway system, expressway shutdowns, and attacks on government buildings. They have led to campus shutdowns, suspended semesters at many of the province's colleges and universities, and the resignation of Quebec's education minister. Some supporters of the students invoke the social-protest movements of the late 1960s to suggest their radical bravery, while critics disparage them as enfants roi, or child kings—monstrously entitled brats.

But perhaps this is something more than a romanticized rush to the barricades or a collective temper tantrum. Perhaps the situation in Quebec, like the recent protest-driven votes for outsider parties in European elections and the rise of the Occupy movement in the United States, actually exposes, in the context of higher education, a profound crisis of faith in the socioeconomic frameworks that have structured and advanced societies across North America and Europe since World War II. These recent events register, in their various local situations, 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.

In other words, Quebec's students aren't simply protesting tuition hikes meant to cover the expected gap between future public revenues and government funds for higher education. They're protesting their looming entry, through the traditional pathway of post-secondary education, into a broader social system—both locally and internationally—whose capacities, as we're reminded daily, are being undermined by enormous government debts, intractable political divisions, flagging national economies, and widespread unemployment and underemployment, particularly for young people.

And if the very socioeconomic structures, institutions, leaders, and policies that purport to solve these overwhelming problems seem instead effectively responsible for exacerbating them, why would students want to join this system, never mind pay a few hundred bucks more per year for the privilege?

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