Don’t Kid Yourself: We all pay for the defunding of higher education

I went to McGill in the late 80s and early 90s when tuition fees were less than $1,200 a year, so with summer jobs and some parental help I graduated from my first degree debt-free. For my MA, which I took in Ontario, I worked part-time and graduated after one year with a debt of $10,000.

By way of comparison: my partner went to university in Ontario after grants were eliminated, and when the first round of tuition fee hikes were implemented. He completed a BA and then an MA, and graduated with a debt load (and compound interest) requiring monthly payments of around $650 for 10 years.

We know we benefited, and are benefiting from, our education. Both of us have found employment that allows us to make use of what we studied, and each of us paid back our loans. But that debt (particularly my partner’s), until it was fully repaid, impacted every major decision we made as a couple and then later as a family. And we still live with those decisions: when we bought a house, when we had kids, how many kids we could afford to have, the fact that we don’t own a car, how often we see our families who live out of town. (The other determining factor is the high cost of child care outside of Québec.)

“Have you set up RESPs yet?” we’re often asked. Are you kidding—with both kids still in child care? And since we have fundamental issues with the RESP system, the public money it represents and how, like the RRSP system, it’s geared to the wealthiest families who can most afford to save, we’ll be exploring other ways—once child care expenses go down—to save for our kids’ education so that they can start their adulthood as debt-free as possible.

Of course, if our house needs major repairs it promises to throw a huge wrench into “the plan”. Because for many of us, life is as precariously balanced as a three-legged stool: alter one element (like when I broke my leg last year, rendering me immobile for several weeks) and the whole thing threatens to topple.

Our societies are likewise delicately balanced: educated societies are healthy societies; equitable societies are safer societies. There is no one panacea—these elements work together. And they need to work well together—which requires accountability, sufficient financing, transparency, and effective administration. So the question is not “health care or education, what’s it going to be?”; the question is, what do we need in order to create an equitable, healthy, educated and engaged society, and what’s the best, fairest, most efficient way to get it?

It is within this context that we need to examine the rhetorical criticisms levied against the Québec student strike and the people involved.

Discarded placards in Place Jacques-Cartier, Old Montréal after 200,000 people marched through the streets against Québec’s tuition increases on March 22, 2012. photo by David Widgington

Tuition fees in Québec are the lowest in the country. What have they got to complain about?

It’s less surprising that Québec students are protesting than Continue reading

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.”

CUTV Program Director Arrested While Covering Student Protest

During live broadcast coverage of a student demonstration on April 4th, Laith Marouf, Concordia University Television (CUTV) Program Director and cameraman was arrested by riot police while reporting live during the demonstrations.

CUTV Program Director, Laith Marouf arrested while reporting live from student demonstration. 2012 © CUTV

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).

Media Studies Graduate Students Renew Strike in Line With GSA

2012 © Eduardo Fuenmayor

Dear Faculty, Staff and Fellow Students,

After careful deliberation, students in the MA Media Studies program at Concordia University have collectively decided to renew our strike on an ongoing basis, to be reviewed weekly. We demand that the Charest government open dialogue with students and rescind the scheduled tuition hikes. To review our full position, please view our statement online here.

We will send a letter to each of our course instructors in Communication Studies to make clear our intentions regarding the submission and evaluation of coursework and to suggest tangible ways that our professors may support us at this time.

We appeal to faculty for continued solidarity in our struggle against the Charest government’s position. Once again, we appreciate the support faculty have provided thus far, and we encourage you to continue supporting us in our call for accessible education.

Sincerely,

MA Media Studies Students
Department of Communication Studies
Concordia University

International Support for the Québec Student Strike Against Tuition Hikes

As the protests continue in Québec against the government’s tuition increases and privatization of education, international support grows in solidarity with us to support accessible education. From québécois students in Paris, to the International Student Movement in Taiwan, to Belgian students living in Brussels, the student strike in Québec is getting international attention.

About 60 students protested in Paris on March 10, two days before Jean Charest visited the city. 2012 © Ismaël Fortier-Geymard.

Yesterday, 26 March 2012, close to 100 students, teachers and labour union activists gathered in front of the ministry of education in Taipei (Taiwan) to protest the increasing corporatisation of universities and plans to hike tuition fees by 10%. They also expressed their unity with the current student strike in Quebec. (source: International Student Movement)

A small group of Belgian students raise a banner in Brussels. 2012 © l'Incroyable Julk.

Pétition à l’Assemblée nationale contre la hausse des frais de scolarité

Last Thursday, more than 300,000 students were on strike, and 200,000 peoples from all walks of life marched in the streets to demonstrate their resolve against tuition increases. The issue is not simply about university funding, it is about the current and profound contemplation about our society and the direction we want to take it.

A French-language and official petition to the Québec National Assembly has been initiated requesting that the government withdraw the tuition increases. At the time of writing this blog post, there were more than 37,000 signatories. I encourage everyone who believes in accessible education for all and who is against the privatization of our educational institutions, to sign the petition. We can easily surpass 200,000 signatories! The petition’s text is written below.

"For an emancipatory education servicing the people" March 13, 2012 © Eduardo Fuenmayor.

Le jeudi 22 mars dernier, il y avait 300 000 étudiants et étudiantes en grève, et 200 000 citoyens et citoyennes dans la rue pour dénoncer la hausse des frais de scolarité. Ce n’est pas simplement la question du financement des universités, mais une profonde réflexion sur notre société qui est en cours. Il ne faut pas laisser les politiciens et les médias décider à leur guise du sens de tous ces événements. Je vous invite, entre autre, à signer cette pétition à l’Assemblée nationale, mais aussi, je vous encourage à ne pas laisser passer cette opportunité unique de réfléchir et de discuter avec les gens autour de vous.

Pétition : Hausse des frais de scolarité

Pour signer cette pétition, vous devez compléter 3 étapes :

  1. Étape 1 : remplissez le formulaire sous le texte de la pétition et envoyez-le (vous devez accepter les conditions à respecter pour pouvoir signer la pétition avant d’envoyer le formulaire).
  2. Étape 2 : consultez votre boîte de courriels et ouvrez le message envoyé par l’Assemblée.
  3. Étape 3 : dans ce message, cliquez sur le lien vous permettant d’enregistrer votre signature.

Vous ne pouvez signer la même pétition qu’une seule fois.

Texte de la pétition

CONSIDÉRANT QUE les frais de scolarité universitaires augmentent déjà annuellement depuis 2007;

CONSIDÉRANT QUE 75% de frais supplémentaires par année coûteront des millions aux contribuables, tout en faisant porter aux familles et aux étudiants à venir le poids de la hausse;

CONSIDÉRANT QUE l’endettement étudiant est en croissance et que de plus en plus d’étudiants atteignent le niveau maximal annuel d’endettement prévu par la loi;

CONSIDÉRANT QUE le taux d’investissement public dans le financement de l’éducation postsecondaire a atteint un minimum historique;

CONSIDÉRANT QUE l’avenir du Québec ne s’érige pas sur l’endettement chronique des générations futures;

CONSIDÉRANT QUE les études universitaires jouent un rôle dans le développement de l’économie et de la société québécoise;

CONSIDÉRANT QU’il existe d’autres solutions pour assurer le financement des universités;

CONSIDÉRANT QUE le Québec est signataire du Pacte international relatif aux droits économiques, sociaux et culturels qui mentionne que «  l’enseignement secondaire, sous ses différentes formes, y compris l’enseignement secondaire technique et professionnel, doit être généralisé et rendu accessible à tous par tous les moyens appropriés et notamment par l’instauration progressive de la gratuité ». De plus, « l’enseignement supérieur doit être rendu accessible à tous en pleine égalité, en fonction des capacités de chacun, par tous les moyens appropriés et notamment par l’instauration progressive de la gratuité »;

Nous, soussignés, demandons au gouvernement du Québec de revenir sur sa décision d’augmenter les frais de scolarité de 1625 $ entre 2012 et 2017.

This is a Picket Line at Loyola Campus

This afternoon, an enthusiastic group of BA, MA and PhD students from Concordia University’s Department of Communications Studies held a picket line at the southeast door of the CJ Building at the Loyola campus. Many of the department’s faculty lent their support to the action. The purpose of the picket line was to maintain a strike presence on the Loyola Campus, to create placards and banners for the mass tomorrow’s mass demonstration, to feed our camaraderie and strengthen our solidarity. It was also a space to meet with passersby from different departments and other faculties by offering them red felt squares, information flyers and an affable opportunity for conversation. Strikes do not only foment divisions, they also provide opportunities for dialogue where dialogue would not otherwise present itself.

The southeast entrance to Loyola's CJ Building and the "Charrêt" stop sign that reminds students of the strike. 2012 © Eduardo Fuenmayor.

“Would you like a red square?” received mixed responses. Some students and professors responded sharply to my proposal with a “No thanks!” Others wouldn’t look me in the eye maybe from fear of a confrontation. One student turned to me as she rushed past my outstretched offering of red felt and a safety pin, and snapped, “I have the right to my education too!!” Maybe she blamed me for missing a class tomorrow after the university administration’s decision to lock down both campuses for the entire day of the mass demonstration. Dialogue did not come easy with everyone. These are representations of the divisiveness that strikes are known for.

One figure in "The Emergence of the Chief" sculpture by David McGary donned the symbol of student solidarity for maintaining accessible education. 2012 © Eduardo Fuenmayor.

One student seemed unaware of the strike, whose intensity had not really reached the Loyola Campus. How is this possible I thought to myself, wondering if it was plausible that a student from UQAM or Université de Montréal could be unaware of the student strike. I doubt it. The difference in media coverage of the student strike between anglophone and francophone media has manifest differences, which could explain the cluelessness.

The southeast entrance to Loyola's CJ Building and its festive picket. 2012 © Eduardo Fuenmayor.

Two students from Exercise Science responded to my offer with a “yes, why not”, to which I replied do you know what this red square is a symbol of?” They didn’t. I explained that in 2005, when the Québec government decided to take $103 million from the student bursary purse and transfer it to loans, students were incensed! Actually they were mad as hell because without bursaries, they would end up “squarely in the red” (a translation of carrément dans le rouge). Indebted to the hilt. Red square… debt… get it?! These two guys were interested in the history of the Québec student movement that has fought periodically for decades to maintain low tuition in support of accessible education. I continued.

One student on the picket line drinks tea in the unseasonably hot 25 degrees Celcius. 2012 © Eduardo Fuenmayor.

The most common argument in support of tuition increases is that Québec tuition rates are the lowest in Canada. That’s exactly the point because Québec society made that decision decades ago to keep education accessible. The Charest government drones on about students paying their fair share. Québecois pay among the highest income and sales tax in North America because we want accessible education as a collective social project. Before stating that universities are underfunded because of the low tuition fees, critics should look at where the current government is allocating public funds. Consider one example from yesterday’s provincial budget: a $332 million grant in public funds is made available to extend route 167 so that the mining corporation, Stornoway Diamonds, can access its future mine. Stornoway is only paying a franctional $44 million for the construction of a permanent road that leads nowhere else than its future mine. Why are Québécois residents subsidizing this corporation to extract a non-essential mineral from public land?! Would this money not be better spent on education or healthcare or anywhere else with longterm benefits for Québec citizens?

This is our picket line, soft as chalk on pavement. Cross it and have a conversation. 2012 © Eduardo Fuenmayor.

In the end, neither of the two students accepted a red felt square. They weren’t yet ready to show support for the student strike. But that’s OK because the strike gave us an opportunity to chat with one another, across picket lines, borders, faculties, ideologies, divisions. We were both enriched by the exchange. As we parted, I turned and crossed the “soft” picket line drawn on the pavement with coloured chalk. The hive of activity had continued without me. Discussion ebbed and flowed. I was reminded as I glanced toward the tam tam player who was enthusiastically sustaining the heartbeat of the picket. At the beginning of the strike, he recited to our Media Studies cohort a quote by Mark Twain: “Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.”

No to tuition hikes! 2012 © Eduardo Fuenmayor.

I realized that that is what I’d been doing all afternoon.

Communicating Your Concerns About Tuition Increases to Government Ministers

The Québec government continues to advocate that students will pay their fair share for higher education with the tuition increases, which they rhetorically refer to as an investment towards high salaries in the future.

The report, Do we really need to raise tuition fees? was researched by Éric Martin & Simon-Tremblay-Pépin and produced by the Institut de recherche et d’information socio-économique (IRIS). It provide eight arguments that contradict the rhetoric presented by the Minister of Education Line Beauchamp, Prime Minister Jean Charest and all other government ministers.

We have an opportunity to share this informative report with our elected representatives to help them understand our position. For the sake of persistence, we can send a series of emails to every minister by copy-pasting each of the eight arguments into emails to each of the ministers listed below. One email per argument per minister (8 arguments x 9 ministers = 72 emails OR 8 arguments x 9 cc’ed ministers = 8 emails). These are computational suggestion but any distribution formula is encouraged.

Line Beauchamp (Minister of Education):
line.beauchamp@mels.gouv.qc.ca / 514 328-6006

Marguerite Blais (Minister responsible for seniors / COMS Joint PhD graduate):
m.blais@aines.gouv.qc.ca / 514 933-8796

Raymond Bachand (Minister of Finance):
ministre@finances.gouv.qc.ca / 514 482-0199

Jean Charest (Prime Minister and – ha! – “Minister of Youth Issues”):
email form online here / 819 569-5646

Yolande James (Minister of Families):
ministre.famille@mfa.gouv.qc.ca / 514 626-1749

Yves Bolduc (Minister of Health and Social Services):

ministre@msss.gouv.qc.ca (general email) / 418 682-8167

Julie Boulet (Minister of Employment and Social Solidarity):
ministre@mess.gouv.qc.ca (general email) / 1 800 567-2996

Christine St-Pierre (Minister of Culture, Communications and the Status of Women):
circonscription@mcccf.gouv.qc.ca / 514 337-4278

Dominique Vien (Minister of Social Services):
ministre.deleguee@msss.gouv.qc.ca / 1 866 504-3294

Classes & Activities Cancelled by Concordia Administration Frees Students & Faculty to Participate in Demonstration

Buildings closed and activities cancelled on Loyola and Sir George Williams campuses all of Thursday, March 22, 2012.

The following is a joint statement from the GSA and the CSU:

Earlier today, Concordia University announced that the University will close its doors on 22 March 2012 in respect of the province-wide demonstration against tuition hikes. Despite assertions of “business as usual” the message is clear: the strike is real and the strike is working.

Faculty, staff, and the wider community, are joining students in bringing the failure of the Charest government’s education policies to public light. Concordia students are coming together not only to protest what we feel deeply to be an injustice, but also to fulfill our legacy as members of a university that has earned nationwide respect for passionate engagement with and dedication to our wider community, locally, nationally, and globally.

We commend the University for removing the dilemma for students who have chosen not to participate directly in the strike for their own private reasons. With the suspension of classes and all other campus activity, all Concordia students, faculty, and staff who are against the tuition hikes can feel free to express their support of the strike without risk.

We would also like to congratulate Concordia’s administration for taking a responsible approach in minimizing the risks associated with the large crowds expected to gather around Concordia’s Sir George Williams campus Thursday morning. We expect thousands of people to fill the streets around Concordia on Thursday, including thousands of members of the Concordia community. As fraught as such situations can be we know from recent experience that students, and Concordia students in particular, will not be in a mood anger, but one of celebration of our successes and of resolve in achieving our aims.

We look forward to one of the largest demonstrations in the history of Quebec, a proud day for the students of Quebec, and a proud day for everyone at Concordia University.

Lex Gill, President
Concordia Student Union

Robert Sonin, President
Graduate Students’ Association of Concordia University

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