Commentary | L’indexation, on s’en câlisse

The misuses of the public university

On the night of February 25, after the first day of the Quebec Summit on Higher Education, the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) executive passed a motion that may really surprise people: in the event that the Parti Québécois government decides to index tuition, the PGSS would advocate for students to demonstrate in the streets.

On February 26, the final day of the Summit, the government confirmed that they intended to index tuition.

Indexation is problematic for numerous reasons. According to research conducted by the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ), an annual increase of tuition by 3 per cent of household income will amount to a hike of $421 by 2018 and will generate only $127 million over five years for Quebec universities. Considering the extremely high annual revenue of Quebec universities, this increase, over five years, would amount to a small percentage of the total budget of universities. Indexation may satisfy the government’s political ends, but it won’t provide long-term solutions for universities.

This hike will bring not only minimal additional revenue to universities but also no additional funding to students. Student income from employment and scholarships simply does not follow an inflation curve (i.e., it will not be indexed). If the government does not index employment income and university funding, they shouldn’t index tuition.

Although some people have contended that the increase is minimal – only $70 per year – we campaigned last year against any tuition hike. Indexation puts more of a financial burden on students. It accounts for neither the current level of student debt nor an increased level of debt that students would incur due to indexation.

The real problem is a lack of clarity regarding the amount of funding that universities actually need. Injecting new funds into universities must happen following an in-depth evaluation of universities’ needs, linked to their objectives. In this way, universities could be held to account for their financing.

A discussion about objectives also opens up broader issues. By using strictly economic language like indexation to explain tuition, the Quebec government is reducing university education to a commodity. The Canadian government also adopts this language; for example, in a recent statement to CBC News, an anonymous Conservative politician said: “There’s a general feeling there are too many kids getting BAs and not enough welders.” The government not only conceives of university education as a training ground for the Canadian labour force, but also devalues degrees that have little productive economic power and are less commodifiable.

This commodification of public universities, however, isn’t new. It is part of a long shift in the purpose of the university that can be traced back to at least the 1960s. In 1963, Clark Kerr, an economist and President of the University of California at Berkeley, outlined some of the key premises for modern university reform, in his influential book The Uses of the University. Adopting economic language, Kerr writes, “The basic reality, for the university, is the widespread recognition that new knowledge is the most important factor in economic and social growth.” He referred to the university as a “knowledge factory” that, like most factories, has an industrial purpose. Kerr ultimately accepted that one of the roles of the university was to engage with a corporate-driven economy.

Another role of the university, at least at Berkeley, was to ban political groups and suppress dissent on campus. Radical students and faculty were quick to attack Kerr’s position. They conceived of a different role for the university: to empower students, challenge the notion of a depoliticized university, and, ultimately, democratize society. In 1964, responding to Kerr’s conception of the “knowledge factory,” the Free Speech movement at Berkeley was born. At a rally, Berkeley graduate student organizer Mario Savio explained that, “just like any factory, or in any industry…you have a certain product. The product is you. Well, not really you. And not really me. The products are those people who wouldn’t join in our protest.”

Savio’s words are a reminder that a student movement challenged the university and fought against an institution that attempted to convert students into silent and passive products. Today, in Quebec, we must take a forceful position against indexation, pose a threat to the Quebec government, and offer a tentative plan of action to voice our opposition to this potentially unlimited tuition hike. We should increase our tactics to oppose the perpetual hike of the PQ government’s indexation. We must revive en masse a contre la hausse campaign. If the government plans to index tuition, our only choice is to protest.

Errol Salamon is the PGSS External Affairs Officer. Reach Errol at