On Campus

Put down the placards!

The stats are in: the tuition debate is officially over

The dream of a province-wide student strike in Quebec has yet again been reheated. Social science students at the University of Quebec at Montreal have been out of class since Monday because of the effrontery of the university — which has the worst credit rating of any Canadian university — to choose paying down its debt over closing its doors.

But, one has to wonder what effect this politically motivated truancy will have, given that at least two other student associations at UQAM voted to reject taking similar action. Not to mention the fact that the longevity of this so-called strike will not be determined by whether or not concessions are made but on whether or not UQAM social science students want to head back to class. They will vote on it again next week.

Back in November, calls for a student strike was dividing the Association for Solidarity Among Students Unions and other “moderate” groups that wanted to have a protest instead — a distinction that makes no sense, and is highly dubious.

As I wrote at the time:

Clearly, choosing to borrow union nomenclature and “going on strike” is meant to give a sense of political weight, a sense of radicalism, and a sense that students who “strike” are somehow more committed to the cause than those who simply “protest.” And that is dishonest. It is also the source of some of the divisions among Quebec student associations.

The ASSE has criticized the Federation of Quebec University Students(FEUQ), a moderate student lobby group, for stalling strike efforts. But, it is the FEUQ that has taken the more genuine approach as they bucked the temptation to call their protest, to take place one week after the ASSE event, a “strike.”

And the distinction still persists: as UQAM students strike, students from across the province converged on Quebec City for a Day of Action to continue their protest of a whopping $100 fee increase. (The increase incidentally still doesn’t dent the difference between what Quebec residents pay and what out-of-province students pay, which is more than double.)

In any event, one has to wonder how long tuition politics in its present form will hold out, with various student leaders, be they from the ASSE, the Canadian Federation of Students, or the Students Society of McGill University, screaming blue murder at even the whiff of a tuition increase.

Casual observers will recall last February when the CFS organized a national Day of Action, to call for the freezing or reduction of tuition fees. The central argument of the CFS and other groups is that the cost of tuition creates an up-front barrier to higher education for students from poorer backgrounds, and that to alleviate any remaining class divisions, tuition must be lowered if not eradicated.

Several political commentators rightfully cried foul after the Day of Action, aided by the release of a statistics Canada report that concluded that the factors that play a role in a student’s decision to go to university are usually in place by the age of 15. And what are these factors? Well, they include above all socialization: the students upbringing, whether their parents went to school, the neighbourhood they grew up in, and academic performance. But, this was nothing new, Statistics Canada reports have been coming to similar conclusions for years (see here and here for instance).

University participation rates are complex, though the anti-tuition lobby would have us believe that demand for a university education can be reduced to the buying and selling of any widget in the marketplace. That as cost decreases, demand increases.

However, unless we are willing to conclude that Statistics Canada is rigging its analysis to fit some depraved “anti-student” agenda, then this debate should be over, and the protesters in Quebec (the ones complaining about a $100 fee increase) should go home.

In a sense, lowering tuition only helps those who go regardless of the cost, which is overwhelmingly students who grew up in homes that are academically inclined.

No doubt that at some point, the cost of tuition does become prohibitive, but not only have we not reached that point, we don’t even know what it is. And besides, the vast majority of policy makers and policy analysts support the position that, if cost is too high for some students, then either the university or the state should aid them, either through bursaries or access to student loans.

This is not a controversial issue, and it renders the anti-tuition argument moot, unless of course you think well-to-do students should receive the same treatment as those from less endowed backgrounds.

I addressed this a couple summers ago in the Winnipeg Free Press (sorry it is not available online):

Universities are filled with many who have been indoctrinated with the self-righteous belief that it is their mission as “intellectuals” to coddle and cajole the working class. However, when it comes to tuition policy, they are fighting for their interests alone.

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