At the beginning of May , the British newspaper The Guardian reported that the student struggle against tuition fee hikes in Québec represented “the most powerful challenge to neoliberalism on the continent.”
Even Paris Match, a French tabloid typically given to celebrity gossip, wondered whether “the first large-scale socio-ecological movement could be emerging in the Belle Province.” Just as we write this article, La Presse, a major Québec daily, is predicting that a worldwide student strike is being planned for the fall, noting that the red felt square worn by protesting students has now become a “symbol of student struggle well beyond Québec’s borders.” Following in the footsteps of the Chilean student protests, the mobilization of Québec students has ignited the fuse of a growing powder keg of popular anger against neoliberalism in Québec, in Canada and in other parts of the world. We are witnessing an unprecedented mobilization to defend public education and with it the very idea of the common good, against the privatization of social relations.
A strike to beat all strikes
Since last February, more than 300,000 students have joined the strike movement; they have blocked access to their educational institutions and they have taken to the streets in demonstrations of unprecedented size. This is the longest strike in Québec’s history, and it isn’t yet at an end. The government, which was quick to resort to manipulation, lies, Orwellian newspeak and violent police repression, is now hoping the arrival of warm summer days will calm spirits and prompt the strike to fizzle out.
The mobilization has moved beyond the student milieu, evolving toward a broader critique of government corruption, of environmentally destructive projects (shale gas, mining, etc.) and of neoliberalism as a whole. Citizens began to assemble in Montréal neighborhoods and in cities across the province to express their discontent with Premier Jean Charest’s policy by banging pots and pans every night at 8 pm.
The government introduced Special Bill 78 (now Bill 12), a piece of legislation that infringes on freedom of expression and association, and criminalizes student protests. This sparked an outcry even among people who did not support the students initially. Québec society quickly found itself polarized into two camps, a situation exploited by government officials, who presented themselves as the party of order and safety, portraying students as terrorists espousing “violence and intimidation.”
The shipwrecking of the university
Québec society has been so torn apart by the tuition fee increase announced by the Liberals in 2012 because it marked a profound break with the basic social democratic values of the modèle québécois. Some maintained that the fee hike was necessary for Québec to adapt to the new global neoliberal order, but many remain attached to the project of accessible education, and even free tuition, which was one of the ideals of the Quiet Revolution. Sadly, the elites’ current models tend to be other Canadian provinces, Great Britain and the United States.
The Charest government argues that universities are “underfinanced” and cannot remain “competitive”; thus they present the 75 percent tuition hike as unavoidable. We must look beyond this deceptive ideology to understand the real motivation behind the fee increase. Québec already spends more money on teaching and research than the rest of Canada. Why, then, insist on raising tuition? Because the idea here is not so much to increase university funding as it is to change the nature and source of the funding, so as to decrease the share of public monies, and increase the share of individual and private funds. This business approach aims to make the university dependent on new sources of funding, which in turn makes educational institutions more responsive to the dictates of the new “stakeholders” who finance them.
New students will have no choice but to go into debt to pay the fees, thereby entering into a credit relation which will make them lifelong debtors. To pay back their loans as quickly as possible, they will be prompted to choose fields of study leading to well paid jobs valued by the market. These “customers” will pressure faculty and institutions to obtain just in time training suited to the immediate needs of the economy. Student debt appears as an instrument of social control whose objective is to draw people into the general process of university commodification and shape their behaviour. It is a means of establishing a quasi-market in the public education system, so as to make it responsive to the needs of the economy. This will entail a profound transformation in the structures and mission of educational institutions. Professors will be increasingly subjected to performance evaluations inspired by total quality management practices. Managers and business executives will take control of boards of directors and impose good governance, which means making sure universities function smoothly to produce good value-for money.
This is where we see the hijacking of education: knowledge transmission is replaced by knowledge production and commercial research, that is, fostering innovation to help stimulate capital growth. This is the secret behind the buzzword of the knowledge economy: the instrumentalization of knowledge by capitalist corporations and states with the aim of reviving economic growth.
As the protests spreading through Chile, Great Britain, the Czech R epublic and elsewhere have shown, institutions of higher learning around the world are under attack by aggressive reforms designed to transform them into brainpower reservoirs to be used by corporations and nation-states to wage an ever more ferocious economic war against one another. Universities, traditionally geared towards the independent exercise of thought and the transmission of humanity’s intellectual heritage, have hit the iceberg of narrow- minded economic utilitarianism. This is especially worrisome given the fragility of Québec’s culture, language and social institutions. These changes are part of what the late Québec sociologist Michel Freitag called “the shipwrecking of the university.” Indeed, beyond the debate about how much students should pay for access to university, looms a deeper dilemma connected with a class struggle.
From the standpoint of the capitalist elite, universities, teachers and students must be adapted to market conditions to stimulate economic growth. For others, however, this undermines the right to education, as well as the ability of societies to be self-governing and set their own goals, one of which would be to put the well-being of the community ahead of that of corporations and big money. This is the real meaning of the struggle the Québec students are inviting everyone to join: a struggle to re-appropriate the commons against the dictates of neoliberalism. Yet, they face a government that not only refuses to back down on the corporatization of the university, but has also adopted a much more aggressive approach to politics.
Wedge politics comes to Québec
Prior to the student strike, the Charest government found itself in a rather uncomfortable position. The majority of the population was dissatisfied with its policies; corruption scandals abounded and the government was forced to set up a public inquiry into the matter, risking an eruption of embarrassing into a deeply divisive issue: astroturfing, accusations of violence, Orwellian newspeak and judicialization.
As we explained in the last issue of Canadian Dimension, the Liberal party used members of its youth wing to create a phony grassroots social movement called the Mouvement des étudiants socialement responsables du Québec (MESRQ). This group’s objective was to delegitimize the democratic student organizations at the heart of the student struggle by producing a counter-discourse in support of the government’s reform. In the media, student leaders were thus invited to debate not with government officials, but with “fellow” students, creating the appearance of a divided youth constituency. Student unions were able to resist this tactic by maintaining an unprecedented level of unity, and by offering a more solid and coherent message than their puppet opponents.
Accusations of violence
Even though the majority of protest actions and demonstrations during the student strike were quite peaceful, the government succeeded in keeping the media spotlight trained on certain controversial events (for example blocking a bridge or placing smoke devices in the subway) and presented them as proof of the unjustifiably violent character of the movement. It should be noted that, at the time, the most destructive acts of violence against persons were perpetrated by police forces; but this clear and simple fact apparently did not move major editorialists. Using so-called “violent” events as leverage, the government imposed conditions on student organizations that wanted to be present at the negotiation table: they were expected to publicly condemn acts of violence, or they would be excluded. As Premier Jean Charest knew very well, the more radical CLASSE could not comply with this demand without betraying its basic values, which include respect for diversity of tactics. One again, the solidarity of student unions helped circumvent this tactic. Also, CLASSE decided to condemn violence against persons, but fiercely defended the right to civil disobedience; this allowed students to escape the debilitating straightjacket the government was trying to confine them to. But centrist political parties had no choice but to join with the government in condemning imaginary student violence.
Using a strategy that could easily have been dreamt up by George Orwell, Liberal ministers engaged in spectacular word-twisting. Throughout the conflict, they refused to call the mobilization a “strike,” calling revelations about the Liberal party. Elections were expected to be called, and the government’s calling it a “boycott” of classes, which has a more individualistic and commercial inflection. The premier insisted on calling CLASSE, which of course has a “class struggle” ring to its name, by the new name of “La CLASSÉE”, which in French sounds like “case closed” (“affaire classée”). This was also a deliberate reminder that the coalition was initiated by ASSÉ, Québec’s most left-wing student union, traditionally depicted as radical by the media. Also, when leaving the negotiating table where nothing substantial was ever offered, the government kept saying publicly that the “door was always open” to discussion. The students, of course, did not fall for these Orwellian tactics. But centrist political parties and some journalists began to use the word “boycott” and urged students to adopt a more conciliatory attitude towards the negotiations, even though it was clear that the government was acting in bad faith and wanted the conflict to escalate.
The government then resorted to a new strategy: judicialization. This began with court injunctions forcing educational institutions to provide courses to students who demanded them. The summons multiplied, with the help of a student group that supports the tuition hikes who distributed “injunction kits” to anti-strike students. This led to dramatic scenes of confrontation on campuses, where strikers, teachers and parents were attacked by police to give strikebreakers access to the institution.
The government took another step in this direction by voting Bill 78, the “special law,” which not only limits the capacity of student unions to strike, but also threatens their very survival by imposing heavy fines for each day of an illegal strike and authorizing the withholding of union dues for an entire school term. Again, centrist parties felt compelled to defend the “rule of law,” and so condemned any flouting of Bill 78, even though some opposed it in principle.
While students in Québec have demonstrated extraordinary creativity, courage and determination, the government has engaged in a form of political Machiavellianism that could have a decisive impact on the upcoming elections. While the opposition will be divided and swimming in contradictions, the Charest government will position itself as the only one with a clear message and an image of a force for order against the “chaos” caused by striking students. The Liberal party has already worked to present elections as the only possible mode of conflict resolution. Using the divisions over the student issue to his advantage, Charest might win both the tuition debate and the elections. That is, unless students manage to surprise us yet again with their resolve.
This article appeared in the September/October 2012 issue of Canadian Dimension (Québec Students Teach the World a Lesson).