The Quebec government’s two-day summit on higher education will begin on February 25. Held ostensibly to discuss both the quality and the price of post-secondary education in the province, the summit has been dismissed by students and administrators on the grounds that the event will not engender productive debate. Student federation ASSÉ – the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante – is boycotting the summit in response to the Parti Québécois’ (PQ) refusal to consider free education. A protest will be held on February 26, and 32,000 students have already already voted for a two-day strike mandate.
Citing the provincial deficit, the PQ, which campaigned on the promise of abolishing the previous Liberal government’s tuition hikes, is now considering the option of indexing tuition fees to inflation. While these increases – less than $100 a year – are less dramatic in numerical value, and thus may seem more palatable to the public, they are equally as entrenched in neoliberal austerity. A freeze exists for the purpose of eventually decreasing the relative financial burden on students; indexation would accomplish the exact opposite: it pretends to be financially neutral while allowing inflation to work against students. Indexation exerts all the burden of a hike, but in smaller increments delivered in perpetuity.
The PQ’s dismissal of the possibility of free education before the summit has even begun is remarkably closed-minded. In fact, free education has been demonstrated to be economically plausible, not only in practice in other nations, but also as a projected plan for Quebec. Progressive provincial party, Québec solidaire (QS), has demonstrated that a five-year plan that shifts funding toward a zero-tuition model would not only be feasible, but would also not necessitate any cuts to university revenues. Given the economic feasibility, it appears the government’s refusal to consider the proposal of free tuition is rooted in ideology. This is the same ideology – one that believes education to be a private commodity rather than a public good – that drives the government to cut funding to universities in the middle of the academic year. While CREPUQ, an organization representing university administrators across the province, among other voices, has asserted that the focus of the summit should shift from free tuition to education quality (and the funding required to maintain it), the two issues are tied to the same blatant disregard of the PQ for the importance of education.
Although Quebec’s debt is a serious problem, it cannot be used as an excuse to impose austerity. The government’s effective rejection of ASSÉ’s proposal for free tuition before the summit has begun is indicative of their attitude toward post-secondary education. We, as students, should stand up for the value of post-secondary education within this province – in protest. The Monday demo will meet at 4:30 p.m. at Square Cabot, close to Atwater station and at Square Victoria on Tuesday at 2 p.m.
—The McGill Daily Editorial Board