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

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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
, 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?

The time has come for us to admit that what has worked for so many,
for so long, very likely won’t work for many more, for much longer.

Read the rest of this story at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Image: The CLASSE contingent passing under the Berri underpass during the May 22, 2012 demonstration in Montreal. Taken by Justin Ling, licensed under Creative Commons.

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