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ver the past six months, from the dining room tables of Westmount to the streets of St. Denis, in Montreal, and across the province of Quebec from Hull, to Sherbrooke, to Quebec City, the longest running student strike in the history of Quebec has been a source of intense debate and discussion. As the numbers swell on the streets (with somewhere between 200,000 to 250,000 people taking to the streets across Quebec in March), supporters and critics have emerged in unlikely quarters. There have been expressions of incredulity (even among progressives) about its objectives in the face of apparently small tuition increases. Detractors argue that Quebec students have the lowest fees in the country, that $1,625 seems hardly a motivation to take to the streets when compared to student debt in Ontario, in the UK, in other parts of the world. Explanations for the fervor of the movement range from generational critiques (these students are lazy, they have an overdeveloped sense of entitlement, they are a spoiled generation) to regional exceptionalism (Quebec as a distinct society). Detractors argue that students should learn to see education for the investment that it is, and accept higher fees in the anticipation of higher earnings. But, particularly after the passage of Bill 78 restricting demonstrations, in Quebec support for the students has grown.
Moreover, if we were to follow the money the contours of a different story, a story much larger than the fee hike, would emerge. It is true that Quebec has the lowest student fees for post-secondary education in the country. But it also has the highest personal income tax rates in Canada, and some of the lowest corporate tax rates in North America. What does it matter, then, that students (and an increasing number of supporters) should make a stand against front loaded costs for education but not against high rates of taxation? It matters because poorer students often opt to work to defray costs, rather than graduating with debt — a situation, as any educator knows — that creates a two-tiered education system in the interior of the classroom: those with more hours to study and to recuperate have a better chance of doing well. It matters because — even as businesses call out, in the uncertainty of markets, for well rounded flexible thinkers (T shaped individuals according to the current jargon) — increased fees corral students into simply second guessing employment opportunities — with the predictable gluts in technologically oriented disciplines and deficits in the arts and humanities.
It matters because the trend towards privatized funding forces universities to turn increasingly to endowments, and forces students to turn increasingly to private career colleges of variable quality. In fact, the coordinates of the funding crisis in post-secondary education facing developed countries in 2012 have an eerie resonance with the crisis facing African post-secondary education in the 1980s. Although the echoes are only faint at the moment we might do well to turn to review that history and its impacts (see Caffentzis 2000). At that time, the World Bank declared that public funding of African universities was building an overqualified elite at the neglect of education of its youngest school children, and with its Structural Adjustment Programs, that increased privatization and cutting of public funds would be the cure. Quite apart from creating a false conflict between generations of students, the ensuing disintegration of these publically funded institutions had vast implications for economic, political and cultural life. It halted the growth of a progressive (and politically independent) middle class and cut off opportunities for intellectual development for generations of African young people, streaming them to manual labor in resource extractive industries. Clearly the implications had a reach much vaster than the refashioning of educational institutions, or even the limited opportunities it afforded in that sector for what has now come to be called accumulation by dispossession. More recently, as undergraduate and even masters degrees become a basic requirement for decent employment in the developed world — and exactly at a time when employment options are uncertain — the World Bank has turned its attention to developed nations, and families are increasingly encouraged to see payment for education as a necessary investment in their offspring. So it matters — the strike has far reaching implications beyond the limited issue of “how much” students should pay. Increased fees or a robust taxation system? It matters in terms of the long-term vision we have of society, the overall purpose of education and whether we build a social, intellectual and civic base for that society according to the dictates of fast capital or something more enduring and far-sighted.