Why Vote Against the Québec Government Offer and Continue Student Strike

Since Saturday, some people have come up to me expressing their delight a strike that is finally over, now that a negotiated agreement has been made between the government of Québec and striking students. My reply is that “nothing can be further from the truth.” Here’s why.

“Education is not for sale. Yes to the general strike.” Photo March 22, 2012 by David Widgington.

1) Government Insincerity & Incompetence

The most obvious reason for rejecting the offer is that there is nothing in the so-called “agreement” that addresses the tuition fees nor offers any proposal for reducing the 82% tuition increase over seven years. The “agreement” that students are voting on this week, proposes to end the crisis with the establishment of a Provisional University Council (PUC), whose mandate would be to make recommendations to the Minister of Education by 31 December 2012 about “the optimal utilization of universities’ financial resources and show, where they exist, recurrent savings that can be freed.” These potential (but not guaranteed) savings would not reduce tuition increases but would instead transferred to diminishing the $500-$800/year user fees universities have been allowed to increase over the last few years. If no savings can be “freed” then status quo prevails. As a temporary measure, $125 in user fees will be reduced to compensate for the tuition increase during the 2012 fall semester. At the beginning of the strike, Premier Jean Charest and Education Minister Line Beauchamp argued for tuition increases to resolve university underfunding. Their offer now claims that universities have more money than they need, allowing them to squander millions on severance packages, luxurious promotional trips and marketing campaigns.

This 19-person Provisional Council would effectively audit universities to flush out administrative spending abuses. Based on the composition of the Provisional Council (six university rectors, four union members, two people from the corporate sector, one CEGEP administrator, two government bureaucrats and four student representatives) it is doubtful that it will have any genuine motivation to criticize university spending practices and recommend budget cuts to reduce student fees. And there are no provisions that prevent universities to continue to unilaterally increase user fees. Education Minister Line Beauchamp is quoted in Le Devoir as saying, “if gains for students are to be had, they still need to be calculated and are not guaranteed,” already opening the door for the Provisional Council to declare that university spending practices have been optimized and that no money can be “freed” from the budget.

I will vote against the government’s offer because it is a pre-election smoke screen aimed at further dividing the population and improving its position in opinion polls that show 62% support for tuition increases but an even higher percentage that believes Jean Charest mismanaged the student crisis.

In June of 2008, then-Education Minister Michelle Courchesne Continue reading

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Why Québec Student Strike Should Continue Within a Larger Social Movement

It was a Monday morning just before 9:00 am. As I walked to the Charlevoix Metro, historically working class neighbourhood of Pointe St-Charles, the context within which the student strike was situated became blatantly clear. I was on my way to the Concordia University Graduate Students Association general assembly to update a commitment to an unlimited general strike.

Signage from the Société des alcool du Québec (SAQ) store in Pointe St-Charles is removed as the local outlet is closed, forcing the residents to go outside of their community to buy alcohol. Closing down local outlets of public services is one example of the commercialization of government institutions that prioritize fiscal good governance and profit margins over providing accessible services to Québec's communities. April 2, 2012

Across the street from the metro were the last vestiges the neighbourhood Société des alcool du Québec (SAQ) liquor store being dismantled. The local outlet closed its doors on March 31. For months, local residents have been campaigning for the store to remain open with public information strategies, posters in livingroom windows, protest demonstrations and a banner that spanned Charlevoix Street in view from the SAQ’s front door.

"Don't Leave the Pointe: services in the heart of the neighbourhood" banner still spans Charlevoix street as a reminder that public institutions do not necessarily have community well-being as a priority concern. April 4, 2012.

Like Premier Jean Charest, who maintains a deaf ear to student concerns that tuition increases will decrease accessibility to higher education and privatize public institutions of higher learning, the SAQ management couldn’t care less about community concerns. For them, the bottom line is king, but not the benevolent type who looks out for his subjects but rather type of king who wants more for less at his subjects’ expense.

According to a March 9, 2012 press release, the SAQ proudly announces that its 2011-2012 third quarter had net sales grow 5.9% with profit increases of 6.4%. In real terms this means that the SAQ increased its profit in the last three months of 2011 by $56.8 million to a total three-month profit of $1.023 billion! Exactly 22 days after revealing staggering profits, the SAQ closed at least three local outlets in (Pointe St-Charles, Ville-Emard, and according to the sign in the truck, “Côte-des-Neiges”) all of which are lower income communities. Apparently, lower income communities don’t deserve equal access. This reminds me of a billboard image I recently came across that reads a slight variation of the following: “We do not have a [social] problem, we have a capitalism problem.”

Banks closed their local branches in Pointe St-Charles decades ago in a mass restructuring bid to increase profits. Now, four times a year, Canadian banks proudly flaunt record quarterly earnings without flinching at the long-term side effects of their greed. In fact, governments praise them for their resilience and competitiveness. Only the cooperative Caisse populaire Desjardins remains to provide financial services to The Pointe’s residents. In 2007, Canada Post announced that it was to close the neighbourhood’s only post office. Community members decided this was unacceptable and protested the announced closure. Their efforts did not save the post office but it did keep postal services in the neighbourhood, with a postal outlet installed inside a local grocery store chain. Some battles for services are won and some are lost, but each battle needs to be fought to avoid losing everything.

"Education is not for sale. Yes to the general strike." Photo March 22, 2012 by David Widgington.

Every encroachment of capitalism into public institutions takes away resources from the public and transfers it over to the private, in a capitalist imperative for perpetual growth. Not the type of long-term growth that builds communities to improve society but the type of growth that bolsters private enterprise by increasing investment portfolios of a minority of individuals. Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) that governments now vigorously advocate allow further encroachments of private interest over public good. PPPs provide public “investment” in infrastructure projects from which private corporations secure the profits. The extension of route 167 is one glaring example within the Charest government’s PPP approach to its Plan Nord.

In closing, I reproduce, below, a portion of the conclusion from a recent report by the Institut de recherche et d’informations socio-économiques (IRIS) that states:

     “A sharp increase in tuition fees is presented as the inevitable solution to an alleged problem of university underfunding. The facts analyzed [in the report] indicate that such an increase is actually a political choice aimed at privatizing the funding and role of universities.

We are currently experiencing a number of crises (environmental, economic, cultural). Given these circumstances, we should be using our intellectual efforts to reinvent the way we live and inhabit the world. Yet the transformations we see being imposed on universities actually undermine their independence and make them simple accessories to the unrestrained and irrational economic growth. Learning institutions are reduced to intellectual entrepreneurship centers that orchestrate the shift to a system ruled purely by economic considerations.

We must therefore not only oppose tuition fee hikes, but also reaffirm the importance of the public — not commercial — nature of universities so that knowledge may serve to foster individual and collective autonomy, critical thinking, and the transmission of intellectual heritage rather than simple market value.”

Concordia University President Supports Free Education in Québec

Yesterday,  April 2, 2012, Concordia students occupied the 15th floor of the John Molson School of Business building. Their demands included academic amnesty for striking students and for the university to state their official position against proposed tuition hikes by the Charest government.

Still image from The Link video of April 2, 2012.

In a recent video produced by student newspaper, The Link, Concordia President and Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Frederick Lowy informally met with the students who refused to leave the hallway outside of his office and spoke to the crowd, during which he said:

“I personally would have no problem at all with zero tuition. With no tuition at all, provided the university could get operating funds from other sources. OK. There are other countries in the world, as you know, although not many but there are countries where there are zero costs to higher eduction, just like there is zero cost right now to elementary school education.”

Frederick Lowy must certainly know that there are indeed funds available, if only the Charest government would prioritize accessible higher education rather than subsidize mining corporations.

(2007 © Phil Angers taken from the graphic novel "Extraction!: Comix Reportage)

Here is just one particular source of funds that could (and should) replace the total sum of $265 million tuition fee increases [1] that the Charest government proposes. Consider this example from the Québec 2012-2013 budget: a $332 million grant of public funds is made available to extend route 167 so that the mining corporation, Stornoway Diamonds, can access public land for mineral extraction. Stornoway is only paying a fractional $44 million for the construction of a permanent road that leads nowhere else than its future mine.

“The Route 167 Extension is the $332 million road development project designed to connect the communities of Chibougamau and Mistissini to the Renard Diamond Project by way of a number of other prospective mining projects as well as the new Albanel-Temiscamie-Otish Park…

…On August 1, 2011 Stornoway announced the signing of two financing agreements with the Government of Quebec by which Stornoway will contribute to the construction and maintenance costs of the new road. Stornoway will contribute $44 million to its development …” [2]

Why is québécois society subsidizing this corporation to extract a non-essential mineral from public land?! Why has Premier Charest not consulted the public to ask us whether or not we would prefer to maintain and improve accessibility to higher education rather than to subsidize the profit margins of private corporations?! Would this money not be better spent on education or healthcare or anywhere else with longterm benefits for Québec citizens rather than for short-term dividends for corporate shareholders?

It is time for university administrators like Concordia President and Vice-Chancellor Lowy to break their silence. They must assume their roles as leaders of our public institutions to pressure Premier Jean Charest and Education Minister Line Beauchamp to begin dialogue with the student movement. Frederick Lowy should lead the way with his vision for zero fees for higher education in Québec.

All of Québec society — students and otherwise — should ask ourselves: Is it more beneficial for society to give money to private mining corporations so they may access public land for the extraction of gold or diamonds which are often socially and ecologically costly and only serve the interests of luxurious consumption and capitalist financing? Or is it more beneficial to take that same money and give it to public institutions to maintain or improve accessibility to higher education?

Now is the time to decide!


references:
[1] Éric Martic and Simon Tremblay-Pépin (2012) Do we really need to raise tuition fees?: Eight misleading arguments for the hikes. Institut de recherche et d’information socio-économiques (IRIS) p.3.

[2] This text is taken from the Stornoway website (viewed April 3, 2012).

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