Quebec students took to the streets for seven months to protest a false solution to the chronic underfunding of higher education in the province. Amidst arguments that tuition hikes would address underfunding – rather than looking at the misallocation of budgets at provincial and institutional levels – students persisted in their activism against a short-term solution to a long-term problem. When the Parti Québécois (PQ) announced last week that the planned tuition hikes would be reversed, many proclaimed a victory for the student movement. While a tuition freeze is a step in the right direction, the student movement is far from finished with its fight.
To begin, Premier-elect Pauline Marois’ track record on education is neither blemish-free nor consistent. In 1996, as Quebec’s education minister, Marois attempted to raise tuition by about thirty per cent, reneging on her attempts only after thousands of students protested. Earlier this year, Marois ended her short stint of wearing the carré rouge for reasons of political expediency, though months later her party’s candidates included former Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec (FECQ) president Léo Bureau-Blouin. When the PQ announced its plan to abolish the Liberals’ tuition hikes, Marois also said she would index tuition to the rate of inflation. And there have been no guarantees as to how long this tuition freeze would last – nor has Marois indicated that she will find alternative solutions. (According to the Institut de recherche et d’informations socio-économiques (IRIS), a socio-economic think tank, if the corporate capital gains tax rate were raised from zero per cent to 2.4 per cent, and taxes on the top-bracket income tax rate by 1.4 per cent, university education could be made free in Quebec.)
McGill recently estimated that the reversal of Liberal hikes would result in $90 million in budget shortfalls over the next five years. Marois’ government has not announced solutions that would sufficiently fund postsecondary education or compensate for budgets that were planned with Liberal hikes in mind. In an education system as chronically underfunded as Quebec’s, institutions like McGill all too often turn to funding from the private sector to maintain and expand programming. Thus, we end up with medical scholars financed by pharmaceutical companies, the expansion soley of profitable programs like Mining Engineering, private sector CEOs on our Board of Governors, and an increasingly corporatized campus.
Abolishing tuition hikes was certainly a goal of the student movement. But the movement was never just about tuition. It’s about the accessibility, prioritization, and social value of postsecondary education. It’s about the future of Quebec’s system of education, and the slippery slope of increasingly burdening students with financing a broken system. All of these issues are still pressing, and the student movement should continue to fight for the right solutions. If the PQ, Marois, and Quebec are serious about addressing students, it’s going to take a lot more. Tuition hikes were never going to magically solve our problems, and reversing them isn’t going to, either.