It wasn't long after Pauline Marois tried to turn a frown upside down by announcing a $70 a year tuition hike at an education conference in Montreal yesterday that students were out, in force, protesting like it was 2012. But hey, it wasn't like it was the couple of hundred dollars in tuition fee hikes the Liberals were talking about, right?
Well, if you thought that local university students were going to take that quietly, you clearly don't remember the protests and pan-clanging from last spring and summer. The Association pour une solidarite syndicale etudiante (ASSE) where back out on the streets, in force, within hours. All over what amounts to 19 cents per day of an increase. Still, in what spokesman Jeremie Bedard-Wien called "a show of force," they ground the streets of Montreal to a standstill Tuesday.
The dichotomy in Quebec right now is that their universities need more money, and like universities across North America it's wants to do it by raising tuition. The difference between Quebec and the rest of North America, other than the fact that Quebec students pay the lowest tuition on the continent, is that they don't take tuition fee hikes lying down.
Last summer, the Liberal government's move to stymie student protests led to even greater protests as those students were joined by other everyday people supporting free speech and right to assembly, it's one of the reasons that Marois, not Jean Charest, now sits in the premier's office. So despite the costs of selling out to separatism, Quebec students still get the very thing they didn't want in the first place: a tuition fee increase. Still, the question a lot of their fellow students across the country are asking, even if they too believe that any increase in tuition is bad, is what do Quebec students have to complain about?
Here's the rub in the entire debate. Even with the increase, Quebec's university students are paying what Ontario students paid 15 years ago, and they're still paying the cheapest tuition anywhere in North America. For the average student, this is hard to reconcile. I think every student trying to pay their own way would like to pay less, but when someone pays drastically less it's somewhat harder to get behind their protests so that they can pay lesser than less. As I've discussed before, this kind of thinking is problematic, and focusing on what other people have and you don't doesn't solve any of the real problems.
The argument at the heart of all this is that students everywhere are paying too much. Universities keep raising tuition costs and in order to go, which as young people are told is necessary for getting a good job, then students have to find ways to pay more, which for many means taking on more debt. It's called accessibility, but rarely is the idea of a student graduating with more debt taken as being a sign that education is less accessible. "To say it limits accessibility is false," says University of Montreal rector Guy Breton, who says that despite tuition going up, enrollment has gone up.
Meanwhile, the province's four medical schools were recently at risk of losing accreditation. So what is Quebec, or even any province offering publicly funded post-secondary education to do? Looking into the future, it's the quintessential education conundrum of our time.
Some have suggested that the time has come to put free post-secondary education on the table. When it became necessary to have a high school education in order to secure even a chance at a well-paying career it became mandatory and free for all young people to pursue it through graduation. Is now the time to admit that if people are going to succeed in the 21st century, that post-secondary education should be free to all who are qualified? And I don't just mean university, but college and trade schools as well.
The sad part is that debt is a form of limiting accessibility, but it's not just accessibility to education, but accessibility to a quality of life people can enjoy post-grad, especially given that well-paying entry level jobs are scarce and many recent university grads find themselves under-employed. We really do need a new approach to post-secondary education: recruitment, programs, and funding. But the revolution, I don't think, will be lead by the ones that rally over 19 cents more and hundreds of dollars less than colleagues one province over.