Skip to content

McGill and Concordia Students To Strike Against Quebec’s Tuition Hikes

Student strikers hope to build solidarity against tuition hikes

As January 2024 draws to a close, students at McGill and Concordia are planning to take  action in response to Quebec’s recent tuition policy changes. These changes, marking a pivotal shift in the province’s approach to higher education funding, have ignited an intense conversation among student bodies across Quebec’s English-speaking universities centered around affordability, equity, and educational accessibility. This potential strike represents a collective stand for students’ rights and a call for meaningful change in Quebec’s higher education landscape. The contemplation of departmental strikes, as communicated by Liam Gaither, SSMU VP External Affairs, is not merely a reaction to financial adjustments but a manifestation of a deeper, systemic issue. This situation is the latest chapter in Quebec’s long and vibrant history of student activism, characterized by a persistent pursuit of accessible and equitable education. 

Students are hoping that the strike will foster a powerful sense of collective solidarity. Students from different backgrounds come together, united by a common cause, to draw on strength that lies in numbers. This unity can create a powerful force for change that can echo far beyond the strike’s immediate goals.

The strategic shift towards the strategy of departmental strikes is gaining traction, evidenced by the growing wave of student associations joining the movement. At Concordia, many departments have already held general assemblies and signed onto a strike floor of five participants, with one faculty association, the Fine Arts Student Association (FASA) also voting to strike. McGill, too, is witnessing a groundswell of departmental action, with the Religious Studies Undergraduate Society, the McGill Undergraduate Geography Society, and the Student Association of Sustainability, Science, and Society all voting to go on a three-day strike from January 31 to February 2.

Rising tuition fees at McGill and Concordia threaten to upend Quebec’s long-held reputation as a haven of affordable higher education, potentially rippling far beyond financial impact and into the very fabric of the province’s social identity. As Gaither pointed out to the Daily, “The stakes are incredibly high. This isn’t just about tuition prices; it’s about whether Quebec can maintain its commitment to accessible education for all.” 

These increases, far from being mere financial adjustments, are indicative of a deeper transformation in the province’s approach to funding higher education. For the student body, these hikes are not just an additional financial burden but are perceived as an encroachment upon the fundamental principles of accessibility and inclusiveness in their academic environments. This apprehension is rooted in the fear that higher tuition fees could deter potential students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, thereby diminishing the rich tapestry of experiences and perspectives that form the core of a vibrant university community. The hikes, therefore, pose a threat not only to the financial wellbeing of students but also to the very ethos of inclusiveness and diversity that these institutions strive to uphold.

As of now, out-of-province students already pay three times more in tuition than Quebec residents. With the Quebec government raising tuition fees for out-of-province undergraduate students from $8,992 to $17,000  per year, McGill is set to lose about 60 per cent of its out-of-province students. Soaring tuition fees would force students to rely heavily on loans, potentially saddling them with years of financial constraints and impacting their ability to pursue careers, start families, and contribute to the economy. This debt chain perpetuates inequalities and underlines the urgency of the student movement’s demands. Their fight goes beyond the issue of  immediate financial relief; it’s about safeguarding educational access, preventing debt-driven limitations, and ensuring economic mobility and social justice for future generations. Low-income out-of-province and international students will face a disproportionate burden, their dreams of higher education in Quebec potentially crushed under the weight of increased costs.

Lower-income students, already grappling with financial challenges, face a dire situation. The tuition hike threatens to exacerbate this existing struggle, jeopardizing their access to education and perpetuating the cycle of economic disadvantage. The impact of these disparities extends beyond individuals. The fight for affordable education, therefore, is not just about individual financial relief; it’s about safeguarding access to education as a fundamental right for all, regardless of background or financial standing. It’s about fostering a diverse and inclusive learning environment that reflects the richness of Quebec society. In essence, it’s a fight for a future where education empowers, not excludes, and where talent has the space to flourish regardless of postal code or family income.

Gaither compares departmental strikes to “screwing up the plumbing system,” strategically causing controlled disruptions to force a reckoning with the existing infrastructure. This targeted approach, while not as visually unified as a large-scale strike, still holds the potential to be enormously effective. 

“We are clogging up the pipes of an entire plumbing system, we’re coming from all angles and just screwing it up,” Gaither explained. “I think that gives us a lot more control in terms of like, where we want to strike, when we want to strike, and how long we want to strike for.” This flexibility and control empower students to target specific classes, and more effectively enforce the strike. 

Quebec’s rich history of student activism, dating back to the 1960s and 70s, is crucial in understanding the context of the current unrest at McGill and Concordia. The province has been a historical epicenter for student-led movements, with the 2012 “Maple Spring” protests standing as a landmark event in this legacy. These protests, which garnered international attention, were not solely focused on opposing tuition fee increases. They represented a broader struggle for student rights, educational reform, and societal change. The Maple Spring mobilized thousands of students in a display of solidarity and collective action, setting a precedent for how student activism could influence government policies and public opinion. The movement’s success was partly attributed to its ability to unite diverse student bodies under a common cause, transcending language barriers and institutional boundaries. This historical milestone in Quebec’s student activism highlights the potential impact that concerted student efforts can have on policy and governance.

The McGill and Concordia strike over tuition hikes is set to spark diverse reactions across campus communities. The departments most vocal about striking, as highlighted in the interview with Gaither, include those from the faculties of humanities and social sciences at both universities. Driven by a deep commitment to social justice and educational equity, RSUS is taking a firm stand against the tuition hikes by joining the effort and going on strike. Their stance is that affordable education is a cornerstone of a thriving society and that every student, regardless of background or financial means, deserves access to quality higher education. This perspective aligns with the traditional ethos of student activism in Quebec, where education is not just viewed as a commodity but as a right. However, there has been tension between those who prioritize the university’s image and reputation, and those who believe in the power of collective action for achieving broader benefits.

“We kindly refer to that as like clutching their pearls… that sentiment is always going to exist, particularly in the guild. But we want to always work around that and show that the collective interest does benefit everyone and that we can get wins this way” said Gaither.

The role of media and public discourse has been a critical component in the evolution and impact of student activism in Quebec, a fact that is particularly pertinent in the context of the potential strikes at McGill and Concordia Universities. Historically, media portrayal has played a dual role in student movements – both as a megaphone for acting activism causes and a lens through which public opinion is shaped and, at times, contested. As Gaither reminded us, the 2012 student movement resonated powerfully because it “tapped into a deep, collective yearning for change amidst a global backdrop of socio-economic and environmental crises, offering a narrative of transformation and renewal that was both appealing and mobilizing.”

The student strike isn’t merely a closed-door battle within the university walls; it’s a carefully orchestrated performance to spark public discourse. This understanding of the power of public discourse shapes the current movement’s strategy as well. Social media serves as a critical tool amplifying voices, mobilizing supporters, and generating real-time updates. 

“The overall strike tactic is like, rather than begging or lobbying or asking for something, we are directly negotiating and using our power,” Gaither explained. “Someone described this to me as a staring contest, either with the administration or with the government, and it’s to see who blinks first.” The aim, as Gaither emphasizes, is not simply to garner attention, but to spark crucial conversations about the affordability and accessibility of education. The movement seeks to shift the public narrative, challenging dominant assumptions about the value of higher education and its role in a just society. By framing the strike as a fight for everyone’s future, not just a select few, they hope to build a broader constituency and garner public support for their demands.

The strike, therefore, is not just about demanding change from the Quebec government. it’s about mobilizing a public conversation about the future of education in Quebec. By harnessing the power of media, social platforms, and open dialogue, students aim to shift the public narrative, garner support, and hold the government and university institutions accountable.  

The student strike represents a fraction of a wider struggle, a single cause which shares interests with many others. The movement gains strength from organizations like the Coalition of Resistance for a United Student Movement (CRUES), which brings together various student associations to enable collaboration and collective action. Gaither emphasized CRUES’s potential role in enhancing communication, strategizing, and amplifying the collective student voice. While not having a part in organizing the strike, CRUES could still contribute significantly to the movement. This collective spirit not only strengthens the movement but also creates a legacy of collaboration and mutual support. Students learn to advocate not just for their own concerns, but for the broader well-being of their peers, building a culture of empathy and shared responsibility.

Reflecting the spirit of unity and the resolve to make a significant impact, the potential strikes at McGill and Concordia serve as both a testament to and a catalyst for this evolving tradition of student activism. By standing together in these departmental strikes, students are not merely protesting tuition hikes; they are actively participating in a broader, historical movement towards creating a more inclusive, accessible educational system. As these students mobilize, they are setting the stage for a dynamic and transformative chapter in the pursuit of equitable education, signaling that the struggle for affordability and accessibility in higher education remains a vibrant and urgent cause.