I realised as I was driving by the site for the future McGill Super-hospital that the tuition issue goes much deeper than student protesters against the Charest government. It extends to the social democratic idea of universal access to public services against the neo-liberal ideas of small government and deregulation. More so, it extends to the different priorities held by various segments of the population for the future within Quebec. Social democratic ideas are firmly founded in the belief that universal healthcare and universal education should be prioritized to ensure a successful state.
This generation of students attending (or trying to attend) university classes look out at the world economy and wonder if their diploma will even matter. They see a recession that has continued to weigh down both national and international economies. They see a government with priorities not matching theirs in terms of education, social welfare and economic investment for the future. This perspective is reinforced by the increase in tuition fees without a solid plan to improve quality of education in Quebec institutions. The reaction from students would have been different had the government proposed the increase along with a plan to improve overall quality and standards within the province’s CEGEPs and universities. The global economic climate is still uneasy and students fear taking on heavy loans with limited chance of success.
Students want focus on economic stimulus and social spending. Education and healthcare have always been important, but now represent two key areas and two sets of priorities. The generation studying today wants to enter the workforce with the tools needed to succeed in an unstable market. The older generation wants an assured retirement with proper health and social services. The costs involved with both programs are large, and bloated bureaucracies certainly do not help.
This social unrest comes at a time when both government and university bureaucracies seem to be bloated and cracking. Concordia University’s Board of Governors, for example, holds weak authority over a student population that regards it as incompetent, swollen, and wasteful. This comes after multiple governors have resigned with little explanation and enormous severance packages. Students ask themselves where the accountability lies in a clearly flawed system.
Recent events at the municipal level have done nothing to instill confidence in the bureaucracy behind Montreal’s government. The Sûreté du Québec (SQ) recently arrested Frank Zampino, once president of the executive committee of the City of Montreal, construction heavyweight Paolo Catania, and former fundraiser for the mayor’s party, Bernard Trépanier on corruption charges. The Provincial government has been touting their Plan du Nord while ignoring the crisis in their most populous city and around the province, an issue that should have been dealt with over three months ago. Instead they allowed it to become radicalized and violent.
We also look to a federal government that was recently denounced by the United Nations on matters of the environment and the right to food. Instead, our government focuses on oil infrastructure and military spending.
We cannot simply ignore the tuition issue and hope it will go away. The government’s stubbornness throughout the “crisis” has infuriated students who now see the Charest Liberals as an un enemy, rather than someone approachable for compromise. Line Beauchamp resigned in failure as education minister instead of trying to bring a cohesive solution to the table.
Simply readjusting the terms of the increase without a plan to spend it will not suffice for students now deeply entrenched in a movement that has lasted over 3 months. Students have clearly shown they will not accept the current system at a higher cost. An effort must be made by the government and universities to improve upon the system before demanding more money from students. This issue should be seen as a collective investment by students, universities and the government to improve education and better prepare graduates for today’s world market.
Students should not be fighting against tuition increases but rather in support of a better system within Quebec. The economic benefits seen in the long-term will outweigh the initial costs, but each party must sacrifice in order to invest in our collective future wealth.
We can do this through infrastructure, education and social spending that will assure our competitiveness in the future as both a city and province. Quebec has historically been an innovating province capable of finding solutions to different issues. Subsidized daycare is a prime example of an investment that brings economic returns to the population. Mothers able to work contribute more to the collective wealth of the province than the cost of the program.
Other issues, such as a two-tiered healthcare system, remain hidden under the fabric of the Quebec bureaucracy. Young students may not find this issue to be a priority but their parents certainly do. The generation soon reaching retirement will require increased social and health spending in the near future. Increased demand without a similar increase in resources has meant the public healthcare system cannot adequately support an aging Quebec population. This means private clinics can service wealthier patients, while many must wait in the public sector. This demand for private services is directly related to the lack of investment by the Quebec government in healthcare in the past. The investment in healthcare today, clearly visible to many watching the super-hospitals being constructed, is necessary for our future. Unfortunately these projects are already plagued by cost overruns, a consistent trend of any major project undertaken within the province.
These two priorities may seem diametrically opposed but they share a common value: the idea that certain services should be universal and offered to all, regardless of age or income. A significant portion of the Quebec population holds this belief. Instead of fighting against a tuition increase, students should argue for social service reforms and infrastructure spending. The neo-liberal idea of small government is often argued as a solution to over spending. Nevertheless, some fail to realise it is not the programs that are the problem but the bloated and seemingly untrustworthy bureaucracies found within each level of government.
It is important to note that the action taken by students has been, for the most part, peaceful. Of course media coverage has focused overwhelmingly on the violent and disruptive demonstrations that have taken place over the last three months. The general population considers these violent tactics used by some student groups as too revolutionary. If students hope to bring a larger portion of the population to their side, they must adopt more passive and peaceful methods. A larger portion of the general population must support their cause if they are to succeed.
There is no other option out of this crisis. Students will meet government contempt with frustrated violence all summer if needed. Come September the issue will still be there. Worse the city of Montreal will continue to be held hostage by an increasingly enraged student movement. The effect on the city has already been felt and the summer will certainly not bring calm, but instead rising temperatures.
– James Vaccaro
Photo: Justin Ling