On November 11, a day after thousands of students took to the streets to protest impending tuition hikes, the Quebec Ministry of Education launched a new website advertising the merits of the increases.
Within 24 hours, a group of anonymous students created their own site, arguing against the increases, which will levy an extra $325 a year extra for five years – amounting to $1,625 by 2017 – starting in September.
The government’s website, quebectuitionfees.com, argues, “[A tuition fee] increase is necessary to continue to ensure the quality of teaching and guarantee the value of a university degree.”
The website includes graphs breaking down personal costs for students, promotional videos, and a section on keeping education accessible through loans, financial aid, and other programs.
The ministry reportedly spent $50,000 on Google keywords to ensure that the website appears first in results of Google searches. Some of the keywords purchased include the acronyms of anti-tuition hike student organizations such as FEUQ (Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec) and FECQ (Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec), as well as words like “strike” and “manifestation.”
Martine Desjardins, president of FEUQ, confirmed that the organization knew that the website was being planned.
“The worst thing was actually the key words that they bought,” she said. “It’s not ethical. We think it’s the wrong way to send a message to the population, instead of having a debate with students and the population about whether or not it’s right to raise tuition fees.”
SSMU VP External Joël Pedneault said, “[The fact that] the government has been spending tens of thousands of dollars on a PR campaign…really insults people who have to work a job and study and take care of other commitments.”
The address of the students’ anti-tuition hike website, quebectuitionfees.ca, is nearly identical to that of the government.
Responding to the statements on the government’s website, the site claims, “The $1,625 tuition increase has nothing to do with the quality of teaching or the value of a university degree.”
It goes on to state, “this website has been made available on-line in response to the disinformation campaign led by the Quebec Ministry of Education – who, by the way, just spent $50,000 of taxpayer money buying Google keywords to push propaganda.”
Pedneault said, “It’s really important for people to counter the information that the government has been putting out.”
However, he had doubts about its influence on the tuition hikes themselves. “I don’t think it will be enough to really tip the balance and get the government to back down,” he said.
“The government is rolling out a PR campaign,” Pedneault continued. “The tuition hikes battle is far from over.”
The Ministry of Education could not be reached for comment at press time.