Failure and betrayal are commonplace in political movements, successes rare. With the Parti Québecois (PQ) thrown into office because of the tumult of the student strikes, some question the achievements of the tuition fee protests. They shouldn’t.
Austerity politics are being rolled out across the developed world, but Quebec is almost unique in successful resistance. In ousting the Parti libéral de Québec (PLQ) and stopping a tuition hike after months of direct action, Quebec students and their allies scored an extraordinary victory. This is a victory of which to be proud, and despite subsequent setbacks, it is the envy of education activists across the globe.
Nowhere is this more true than in the UK, whose own student movement meekly came to end in 2011 after university tuition fees were tripled from £3,000 per year to a maximum of £9,000. To put that into perspective, a three-year undergraduate degree in the majority of British universities now costs around $35,000. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the annual disposable income of an average British family is around $28,000.
The effects were as predicted: in September 2011 when the cuts were introduced, university applications fell by 9 per cent and there was a significant drop in enrolment in humanities subjects. Numbers of part-time undergraduate students has fallen by 40 per cent, and for the most part this is the cohort of students who cannot afford higher education unless they work.
Austerity politics are being rolled out across the developed world, but Quebec is almost unique in successful resistance.
The cuts did not stop there though. In their munificence, the British Conservative Party reduced the tax rate for the richest earners while their sloganeering – ‘We’re all in this together’ – saturated the media. The irony that most cabinet members are millionaires was completely lost on them. The government stuck to the line that the debt had to be serviced and universities had to pay their own way. The rationale then behind the £500 million bank bail-out was also seen as unironic: socialism for the rich, market discipline for everyone else.
Students in Britain had been betrayed. A hung parliament in 2010 forced the Conservative party into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who had campaigned on a platform of no education cuts. Within months, they fell in line with their Conservative partners and accepted the proposed fee hike. The students who had voted them into office took to the streets in defiance.
Resistance to these policies did not match the level of organization and outrage in Quebec the following year, when the PLQ mirrored their transatlantic allies. The British movement lacked the benefit of broad-based, organizing groups like Coalition large de l’association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (CLASSE).
When 300,000 people marched in Montreal against Bill 78 (an emergency law limiting the right to protest), across the pond we could only look on in wonder, slack-jawed.
The so-called leaders of the British protests were cautious, afraid of negative media coverage. During the first instances of direct action against government cuts, the leaders of the main student and academic union distanced themselves from the more militant sections of the student body, dividing dissent in the process. Their evasive stance is in stark contrast to the organizing of CLASSE and other groups. When 300,000 people marched in Montreal against Bill 78 (an emergency law limiting the right to protest), across the pond we could only look on in wonder, slack-jawed.
Protests continued in the UK until the House of Commons vote in December 2010, but were consistently undermined by police tactics. Police placed an old van in the path of one march, hoping to demonstrate that the protestors were violent when it was smashed up. A cordon of students circled the van, having understood the tactic, but it was eventually wrecked. Proof of infiltration of student groups by police spies has now surfaced too, confirming something long suspected by activists. When votes on fee rises passed in 2011, occupations on British campuses continued for a while, but in the end, fizzled out.
The PLQ attempted to delegitimize Quebec students too, accusing them of irresponsibility and damaging law and order. The galvanized anger of students and their allies in Quebec eventually played a role in kicking them out of office. Contrast this with Boris Johnson, mayor of London, potential British Prime Minister, whose response to student action against Conservative party headquarters was that it was “intolerable” and that those involved must be “pursued” and “face the full force of the law.” He remains in power, and popular.
In the UK, tuition fee hikes began in the 1990s and now a university education there is among the most expensive in the world. Quebec students need only look there for proof of their success.
In comparison, what happened in Quebec in 2012 is remarkable. We look with envy at the structures of direct democracy created across campuses that sustained the strikes, and at a student body unwilling to compromise over a public good. Eyeing Quebec, British students learned the significance of disorganization the hard way.
The PQ’s decision to support demands stopped the strikes, but they are not allies of the student movement. Indexing tuition fee increases to household income is not what thousands of students struggled for, and people are rightly worried about attacks on their education system. What’s more, the PQ are proving themselves just as austerity-hungry as other parties, with broad-side attacks on welfare and hydro-electricity prices. That they failed to mention this during their campaign should not be surprising; betrayal is nothing new.
Still, the achievements of students in Quebec in getting a political party to bow to some of their demands is almost unparalleled – the last time students in the West brought down a government was in Paris in 1968. Protesters in Quebec correctly saw through the PLQ and recognized that their right to an affordable education was under assault. In the UK, tuition fee hikes began in the 1990s and now a university education there is among the most expensive in the world. Quebec students need only look there for proof of their success.
Emmet Livingstone is a Masters student in Political Science. To get in touch, email firstname.lastname@example.org