Behind the Green Square: Why Many Students Opposed the Strike

Check out Martin Robert’s support of the student strike. This article has been translated from the original French. Read the French version here.

On March 30, 2011, Quebec Minister of Finance, Raymond Bachand, announced that students would have to pay more for their university education, and that the funding of universities would require a greater contribution from students. Following this announcement, Quebec student associations decided to speak for all students, as if magically all students were of the same opinion.

Students in Favour of the Hike? The Beginning.

It is in that spirit that last November, Marc Antoine Morin and I decided to engage in the public debate about tuition fees. It was time for all student voices to be heard. We could not let student associations speak in the name of all students. We had to act. As student associations and the student union movement prepared for a student demonstration against a tuition fee hike, Mr. Morin and I decided to create a Facebook page inviting students to protest for a tuition fee hike.

In day-to-day life, no one likes to see their expenses increase, and that makes sense. However, Quebec taxpayers face rising costs that increase continually. According to the Institut économique de Montréal, “Quebec’s debt reaches over $50,000 per worker, it increases over $20 million per day, a debt that places Quebec 5th among the most indebted nations in the world.” Ultimately, it is taxpayers who are responsible for this debt, created by the inability of government to control expenses.  The Quebec Ministry of Education manages an annual budget of $15.5 billion, which amounts to 25 per cent of expenses for Quebec government programmes. The taxpayers’ contribution to the education of Quebec students is very high, at over 60 per cent.

Why Index and Increase Tuition Fees?

Students who opposed the increase maintain that universities are not underfunded. According to the Institut de recherche et d’informations socio-économiques, “Combining what the government, students and the private sector invest in universities, we get a total of $29,242 in expenditures per student in Quebec, compared with $26,383 in Ontario and $28,735 elsewhere in Canada. Compared with other OECD countries, only the USA and South Korea are ahead of Quebec in overall per student expenditures.” Bu the difference between overall per student expenditures can be explained in part by the structural differences between teaching systems, including those related to the make-up of student enrolment by level and field of study. Therefore, the fact that Quebec universities have a higher proportion of students enrolled in more expensive disciplines and in graduate studies explains in part their higher per student expenditure than Ontario. In addition, support staff are highly unionized at Quebec universities.

Students against the increase maintain that the government is withdrawing its financial support from higher education. This is not the case. By 2015, the government intends to increase its funding of $430 million to a new total of $850 million: the remainder will be topped off by students and private businesses.

Students in favour of the increase are not convinced by the point of view or by the arguments of the associations opposed to the increase for the following reasons:

First, tuition fees in Quebec are on average $2,415 – that’s 47 per cent of what the average Canadian student pays and 38 per cent of what the average student pays in Ontario according to Statistics Canada data. Quebec students also enjoy the lowest tuition fees in Canada, followed by Newfoundland ($2,624) and Manitoba, at $3,588. According to Minister Bachand, even after the $1,625 increase, a student would pay the same tuition in 2016 as a student in 1968, accounting for inflation. Tuition fees are already increasing on average by $150 per year in Canada. Even with yearly increases of $325, assuming that a $150 increase is maintained elsewhere in the country, Quebec tuition fees would reach $4,040 in five years, putting us in second place in Canada, in terms of affordability, after Newfoundland. Even if we go by the most pessimistic estimates, which anticipate that tuition fees in Quebec will reach $4,700 in five years, Quebec would still have the third cheapest fees in Canada.

Second, Statistics Canada data also indicate that a student with a bachelor’s degree will earn on average $21,627 a year more than someone without a university degree, or $756,945 assuming a 35 year working life. This additional income alone would allow a student to reimburse 13 times the total cost of the tuition fee hike in one year of work, not to mention the fact that graduates with a bachelor’s degree are five times more likely to be hired than those who only have a high school diploma. The financial benefits derived from having a postsecondary degree are therefore significant compared with the financial penalty that arises from the tuition fee increase.

Third, the number of students enrolled in Quebec universities increased, on average, by 1,140 students per year over the last five years, even as real fees increased on average by $150 per year according to Statistics Canada data. There is therefore no correlation between rising tuition fees and a decrease in university enrolment. The university participation rate for people from age 15 to 64 is 4.9 per cent in Quebec and also 4.9 per cent in Ontario, although tuition fees are 263 per cent higher in Ontario. Once again, there does not appear to be a correlation between accessibility and tuition fees. Additionally, a 2004 study by the Institut économique de Montréal concluded that “available data for Canadian provinces show in fact no direct relationship between the level of tuition fees and the accessibility of academic studies.” It is therefore unrealistic to pretend that a tuition fee increase will significantly impact the accessibility of postsecondary education.

Fourth, Statistics Canada data indicate that in 2009, the cost of education in Quebec was financed at the level of 59 per cent from provincial funds and 10.2 per cent from federal funds. In Ontario, by comparison, the provincial contribution is 37.3 per cent and the federal contribution is 9 per cent. It is therefore false to say that the government does not adequately contribute to the funding of Quebec universities.

Fifth, administrative costs amount to 18 per cent of Quebec universities’ and colleges’ expenses, compared with a Canadian average of 20 per cent, again according to Statistics Canada data. So it is not true that our universities suffer from chronic mismanagement that would inflate the students’ bill. Quebec universities and colleges direct 49.6 per cent of their expenditures directly toward education, which is slightly higher than the Canadian average of 47.9 per cent. It is therefore wrong to say that the funds assigned to the sector would be diverted and used for purposes other than directly meeting educational needs of students.

The solutions of CLASSE’s red squares

The solutions and demands presented by CLASSE (Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante), a student association with several ties to Quebec unions, are not realistic given the economic context. In addition, what they propose would have adverse consequences for post-secondary education in Quebec.

CLASSE was not only asking for a tuition fee freeze, but also for free education for all university students. Last May, to compensate for the underfunding of Quebec universities, this economically illiterate association was asking that research funds be used to fund the tuition freeze. They were also asking that universities be forbidden to advertise, which would create additional savings of $18 million in addition to the $142 million already assigned to research funds to finance the freeze. And that’s not all: CLASSE also wants a salary and hiring freeze for university executives and presidents, as well as a moratorium on the construction and expansion of satellite campuses.

If the solution proposed by CLASSE seems logical to its members, they are out of line with Quebec’s economic reality. What CLASSE has proposed is contrary to the spirit of global competition. Studying in an environment that is not competitive would likely cause a decline in the value of a degree. Research funds must be used to attract better professors and researchers, not to make students less responsible for the costs they incur at their educational institutions!

The American model of post-secondary education would certainly not be wanted or desirable for CLASSE. In this student association’s utopian society, the Ivy LeagueTr.’s note would probably not exist because, according to our budding unionists, it represents commercialized education. CLASSE considers education as a public good and, spurred on by this thinking, believes strongly that all students should have the opportunity to go to university. The problem with this line of thinking is that, unfortunately, not everyone can or wants to go to university. For example, for those who want to study medicine, there are qualifying examinations, tests and conditions that must be met before starting that programme. A university cannot indefinitely accept students because there is limited class space.

How does CLASSE expect to institute a moratorium on new educational building construction, when it advocates universality on the one hand but does not want to expand available spaces for universal education on the other? The illogic of this association borders on the ridiculous. The only way we could avoid expanding space for instruction would be to limit admissions to university programmes. How can CLASSE advocate for free education, while ignoring the infrastructure expenditures needed to achieve their social utopia? The only solution would be to limit admissions through stricter selection criteria, for example, setting quotas for all programmes according to the needs of society and making sure students have impeccable student records. All these measures would lead to one thing: free and universal education only for Quebec’s intellectual elite. Only the best of the best would be able to get free education, because after all, resources are limited. CLASSE cannot, in an objective reality, offer free education to university students without compromising the accessibility of Quebec universities.

We therefore reach an impasse: either we contribute a little more, to allow for the redistribution of one third of the increase for the least fortunate students, or we head towards an elitist society where only the most gifted have the opportunity to get a university degree. I prefer better loans and scholarships, a natural quota setting for some programmes, greater responsibility from students for the payment of their studies, and I want to forget about free education. After all, you can’t have something for nothing – someone has to pay the bill and Quebec taxpayers are already the most taxed people in North America. We should let them enjoy the fruits of their labour.

The Strike 

Since the beginning of the debate on tuition fees, many students demonstrated in the streets against the decision made by Line Beauchamp, now former Minister of Education, to increase tuition fees by $325 per year between 2012 and 2017. Students opposed to the tuition fee increase proudly wore their red squares as a sign of protest. The students in favor of the hike and against the strike displayed green squares, signaling that education must go forward. Although there are some who believe it is legitimate to protest in the streets, others do question the goodwill of student associations.

During the student strike, the Quebec population witnessed massive protests often leading to violence. During those demonstrations, many protesters blocked a number of workers from accessing their workplace; they blocked the bridges that connect the island of Montreal with the surrounding areas during rush hour. They also blocked access to a day care centre, preventing parents from picking up their children. They also burned a life-size puppet in front of a day care centre. During the Easter protest, one of the giant red crosses fell on a passerby and injured her. There were bomb threats in Alma, bricks on the subway rails in Montréal, a Facebook group advocating the hanging of Jean-François Morasse (a student suing Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the CLASSE co-spokesperson), and acts of vandalism at the Université de Montréal, among others.

Those who were in favour of the increase and who were opposed to the strike were targeted by the protesters. Cédric Legros and his friend proudly protested in Sherbrooke at the centre of a red rally. They were dressed in green from head to toe. The police had to get them out of the protest to protect them. The Institut Économique de Montréal, which supports the tuition fee hike and the betterment of loans and scholarships, was vandalized in broad daylight by about forty students.

Jacques Villeneuve, a Quebec automobile racing driver and Formula 1 champion, even received death threats following his statement against student protests that took place during the Montreal Grand Prix.

The response of the green squares

In addition to the violence that prevailed, the strike had an important impact on students. The protesters and their picket lines prevented students who wanted to attend class from accessing their classrooms. The result was the loss of the 2012 winter term. Some students obtained injunctions which, on the one hand, allowed students to have access to their classes, but on the other, exacerbated the conflict among students. This conflict led to the refusal to obey an unfair decision that flouts individual freedoms.

According to Article 6 of the Quebec Charter of human rights and freedoms, every person has the right to peaceable enjoyment and free disposition of his property, except to the extent allowed by the law. As per Article 49, an unlawful interference with a right or freedom recognized by this Charter gives the victim the right to secure the cessation of this interference and to compensation for the resulting moral or material damage. It is in this same spirit that many students sued their educational institution in order to gain access to their classes.

On August 30, 2012 students filed a class action lawsuit against 25 educational institutions and against Quebec’s Attorney General. Kim Laganière and Mihai Adrian Draghici, students at Collège de Montmorency and Université Laval, respectively, have commissioned Michel Savonitto to represent students who sustained damages following the failure by educational institutions and the state to deliver classes. The proposed class action lawsuit criticizes the advocates for having acted neglectfully, with lack of concern and carelessness by not taking the necessary measures for the 2012 winter term classes to be delivered. Laurent Proulx, the first Quebec student to be granted an injunction, and Marc-Olivier Fortin, both representatives of Fondation 1625 (a non-profit organization created to collect funds to support students who were victims of the student strike during the 2012 winter term), supported the class action lawsuit.

All we need to know now is whether the concept of accountability or universality will direct future decision making in Quebec post-secondary education. In the end, it is the one who always pays who has no control: the debt-ridden taxpayer.

Arielle Grenier is a third-year student in political science and economics at the University of Montreal. She is the founder of the Mouvement des Étudiants Socialement Responsables du Québec (MÉSRQ).

Tr.’s note (Translator’s note): The text was in English in the original document.