A few weeks ago, students in Montreal protested against the tuition increase proposed by the Québec government. But might there me more to this student mobilization than simply a protest against a fairly small (particularly by US standards) increase in tuition? A series of recent newspaper articles allude to this possibility by calling into question “the real” nature of, or motivation for, student mobilization.
Although the government and student leaders called a truce, protest, which included vandalism, continued. An April 26th Globe and Mail article by Alexander Panetta claims that “the latest events prompted questions about whether the student leaders actually control the movement they spearheaded.” CLASSE, which is considered a hard-line student group, was excluded from negotiations with the government because they continued to promote protest despite the education minister’s ultimatum. CLASSE’s spokesperson claims that the government really had no intention of negotiating which is why they have continued to promote the use of disruptive tactics.
Was this relatively small tuition increase secondary to its signalling of some political opportunity for mobilizing latent sentiments? CLASSE’s website indicates a position on a variety of issues unrelated to this particular tuition increase. For instance, it opposes NAFTA, favors sanctions against Israel, supports squatter rights, and that course lessons be “feminized.”
It may be that CLASSE has, or is seen as having, some ties to the leftist sovereigntist party (PQ) and vice versa. The actions of the student movement and of the PQ might be mutually beneficial given that the PQ might grant some legitimacy to CLASSE while student activism might be helping the PQ make up for lost ground in recent months as well as to get past internal schisms within the party.
However, polls show that most Quebeckers support the tuition increase and have sided with the government. A more recent Montreal Gazette article (May 8th) has described the evolution of this student mobilization as “anarchists holding Québec hostage.” Students have held 9 strikes in recent Québec history. Three major strikes in the last 30 years were about tuition increases. But perhaps a more interesting take on the movement is that, according to a May 3rd Gazette article, “students have taken a position that looks like something from the Tea Party.” This stems from the idea that the proposed so-called “conservative” plan from the government, which student activists have derailed, would have made it cheaper for students from poorer families to attend university while the status quo actually “impoverishes students whose family incomes are between $30 000 and $60 000,” according to economist Luc Godbout. In fact, the author of the article suggests that Jean Charest, the premier of Québec, is acting like Robin Hood on this matter.
If there is one take away point here is that there seems to be a growing gap between the triggering effect of the proposed tuition increase and the continuity of student activism. The widely held belief among Quebeckers is that the motivation, as stated by student activists – that their fight is about allowing those from poor families to attend universities – is not supported by reality. Critics of the student protests point to the fact that Québec has among the lowest tuition rates in North America. Neighboring Ontario, which has much higher tuition fees than Québec, has twice has many students from poorer families attending university than Québec. Some questions to consider moving forward is whether there is a faulty frame around tuition increases, or whether there should be a more concerted effort on the part of student leaders to reframe their cause as something more general. Are organizations like CLASSE hurting, rather than helping, student activism (at least with respect to appealing to the government and the wider public)? Is the tuition increase simply a trigger for a broader set of grievances, and/or a trigger for opening a new political opportunity for broader student mobilization?