Why student protests don’t work

Tuition keeps rising despite street protests

Today, students in Montreal set off smoke bombs in the offices of Quebecor, a large media and retail company who owns the Sun newspaper chain, as part of a protest against tuition increases. Last week students in Nova Scotia had their annual “day of action” protest against tuition hikes. In the U.K., tuition massive tuition hikes lead to months of protests.

Student protests against tuition increases are a regular event in Canada. Yet tuition continues to rise. Even the extremely large and sometimes violent protests in Britain failed to convince the government to change course.

Why? Because in electoral democracies street protests generally don’t work.

Certainly there are some times when street protests may be effective, the large protests against Canada’s participation in the invasion of Iraq were at least indicative of public sentiment and may indeed have have helped keep our country out of that war.

But they don’t help when it comes to tuition because students don’t vote in elections.

Contrary to popular belief, governments don’t have endless supplies of money, more funding for education means one of two things: taxes have to go up or something else has to be cut. The Canadian Federation of Students has made it clear that they support tax increases to fund education, while other student groups have at times called for unspecified spending cuts (I once asked a student politician what he thought the government should cut, perhaps health care or elementary school funding? He was unable to answer the question).

The fact is that government policy is shaped by the desire to remain in power, no party typifies this more than the federal Conservatives, while opposition policy is shaped by the goal of gaining power, the federal Liberals for instance. It is only those parties that have no chance of being elected, the Greens, the NDP and those parties on your ballot you’ve never heard of before (there are two communist parties in my riding now?), for whom ideology figures as anything more than an obstacle.

How do you get elected? You please the voters. Not the general public, not the people protesting in the streets but those people who are more likely to vote. This is why health care is a sacred cow, while international students are cash cows. Older people, those more likely to use the health care system, vote. International students can’t and their Canadian colleagues don’t.

For the same reason, taxes won’t go up to pay for post-secondary education, older higher-income people are the most likely to vote, while young people are the least likely.

If anything, protests are probably hurting the cause. Direct action has a tendency to preach to the converted, people who already think students are self-interested whiners aren’t going to be impressed by street theatre – it’s only going to reinforce their previously held positions.

Chanting catchy slogans along with a like-minded crowd is a great feeling but it’s not going to change a politician’s mind.