Why are Quebec students seeing red?

Students are enraged over a tuition fee hike, although many in the province believe it was necessary and long overdue.

Montreal protests
Students in Canada's second-largest province have reacted angrily to planned tuition fee hikes [Reuters]

What’s going on in Quebec right now is – frankly – a puzzle to many outside the Canadian province.

Every day and night now for nearly a month, and only a little less frequently for more than two months before that, many young Quebeckers have taken to the streets, waving banners, chanting slogans and occasionally flinging rocks, smoke bombs and Molotov cocktails.

More than 100,000 of them came out to mark 100 days of protests on Tuesday..

 Canada protests against tuition-fee increase continue

Montreal has witnessed most of the mayhem: subway systems have been shut down, bar patrons pepper-sprayed by police, windows smashed, thousands arrested.

Dozens of schools of higher education have been closed as students boycotting classes are refusing to let others study.

And for what?

Government plans to hike college and university tuition by about $300 a year until 2019, that’s what.

These increases will make Quebec’s already low post-secondary tuition costs – still among Canada’s least expensive – even after all the hikes are implemented.

And never mind the United States, where one year of undergraduate education at an Ivy League school can set you back $50,000 or more. Or the United Kingdom, where David Cameron’s coalition government has made the country’s once-free universities among Europe’s most expensive.

What’s the fuss about?

Right now, Quebec’s young scholars shell out just over $2,000 a year for a university degree, not including their living costs. That will be closer to $4,000 if the government gets its way. But even in the rest of Canada, the average is between $6,000 and $7,000.

As many Canadians, Americans, Britons and others have been asking, what’s all the fuss about?

As always, it depends on who you ask and what your politics are.

Here’s what the students – and their supporters among teachers, unions, left-leaning politicians and artists – say:

Quebec has a social contract, a collectivist sense of itself, and its inexpensive post-secondary education has been a part of that for generations. Until the 1960s, the Roman Catholic church and right-wing politicians held huge sway and the province’s education system was the country’s worst.

Reform in the 1960s ushered in sweeping social change and promises of universal access to higher education.

Quebec’s current provincial government is breaking that promise. Many students and their adult fellow travellers on the left virulently oppose the administration’s slightly right-of-centre approach to public finances and what they call its “neo-liberal” policies.

Montreal recently banned protesters from wearing masks  [Henry Gass/Al Jazeera]

Then there’s the government’s point of view. Throughout the nine years that the current Liberal Party administration has been in office, there has been pressure to raise tuition fees, significantly from universities themselves. Studies show a marked decline at Quebec’s post-secondary institutions, and this government has tried several times before to hike fees.

Even former leading figures of the opposition separatist Parti Quebecois – a more left-leaning party – have said it’s time to end Quebec’s cheap tuition.

Provincial finances in general are not good. Taxes in the province are already the highest in Canada, thanks in part to an extensive system of entitlements.

That includes post-secondary tuition, which is less expensive in real terms than it was in the 1960s, when Quebeckers first started going to university in droves.

The provincial government also points out – correctly – that only a third of students were actually boycotting classes. Most just want to finish their education, whatever it costs.

Lead by their powerful students’ unions, the protesters have said all along – even before this latest round of protests – that they wanted talks with the government, which finally consulted them last month when the demonstrations were showing no signs of ebbing.

Widening gulf

The talks produced nothing but more disagreement, although there were hints of compromise on both sides. A very moderate compromise. But students’ demand for a tuition freeze, contrasted with the govenment’s demand for a tuition hike, meant that there was no common ground whatsoever.

Then the gulf grew wider.

The students upped the ante in mid-May when protesters roamed through a Montreal campus, enforcing a boycott with verbal and physical force. They called students attending class “scabs” as if they were breaking a strike at a steel mill.

The government’s response was quick and harsh. Emergency legislation temporarily closing strike-affected colleges was introduced. So were fines on strikers and even stiffer penalties on their leaders and students’ unions.

The “emergency law” passed after a marathon debate, amid widespread criticism of its more draconian aspects from lawyers and human rights groups. Again, opinion polls indicate solid public support for the idea of ending the strike – if not all of the harsh penalties aimed at demonstrators.

So far, the new law has only exacerbated matters, with students vowing to defy the law and police using tear gas, rubber bullets and mass arrests to quell “illegal” protests.

It seems like a lot of fuss for an extra $300 or so a year. But with both sides so entrenched, it’s looking like they view compromise as the most politically expensive option.

The streets of Quebec don’t seem likely to calm down anytime soon. A provincial election is due before the end of next year, and many are wondering if this issue – at once seemingly trivial, yet evidently so serious – might just be best turned over to the voters.

Source: Al Jazeera