Thoughts on education in Quebec
I am tired of reading people's misinformed or inflammatory Facebook updates, so I thought I would just write out what I think about the whole thing, get it off my chest, so to speak. My thoughts are complicated: I think tuition should be cheap for students, but I don't think marching in the streets is the way to get that. I also wonder if the university system as a whole needs a re-think. I think la loi 78 is not nearly as bad as people think, and that police violence that we are seeing now, is not actually sanctioned by it (a point many people can't seem to come to terms with). But anyway, let's go section by section.
Tuition can't be "free": someone has to pay for it. The question is, how much of the cost should be paid by students, government, and private interests. I certainly would be pleased with a result that saw students pay little to none of the burden. Of the three constituencies, they are certainly the least well-off. But they are also the main beneficiaries of the education system, at least, in theory. (more on this at the end: what are we fighting for?)
I wonder if it is the same students protesting now, who cry out against the corporatization of campuses, as introducing more corporate dollars would definitely help shift the burden away from students. The problem with that of course is the fear that corporate interests would affect research. It would be naive to think that it wouldn't, but it is also naive to think that it doesn't already. How far down that road are we willing to go?
The question of how much burden the government is willing or able to take on is more complicated than people think. First of all, what we really have here is not a conflict between students and government, but between students, who pay few taxes, if any, and the bulk of the tax paying population. Quebec is already the North American region with the highest tax burden: should Quebecers be made to pay more?
Is it really necessary to increase the tax burden to pay for a larger government contribution to education? Of course the government would say yes. But surely there must be some fat to trim. In a society that prides itself on it's collectivity and socialism, surely we can find some government departments to trim. Might I suggest the entire department dedicated to analyzing and approving "foreign" academic credentials. I put "foreign" in quotation marks because degrees from Ontario and New Brunswick, and indeed, anywhere else in Canada, are subject to this process, for anyone who wants to work for the government in Quebec. Is it not enough for the HR department to do an internet search and determine whether an applicant's degree is from a reputable university? But that would require government employees who can think independently, a quality not reserved for Quebec's "public" service.
I'm sure there are other examples of government waste that could be eliminated in order to increase contributions to education (such as the OLF). But that is not the point. Should there be free tuition? I'd like to think so. Can there be? It certainly seems possible. Will there be? No way in hell.
Why not? The simple fact is that governments do not make decisions based on the common good. Ouch, that sounded very cynical. Perhaps it is not absolutely true, but as a general rule, the way a party in power governs is primarily based on getting re-elected. The book The Dictator's Handbook does a really good job of uncovering this fact of political survival that is, unfortunately, not only true for dictators. Charest does not need students to get re-elected. He doesn't have to put government resources towards them in order to keep power.
What is ironic though is that with such large protests, the movement is putting financial pressure on the government, causing them to waste millions of dollars on security, dollars that might be spent on education. After the Habs lost in the playoffs a few years ago, the city billed les Canadiens for $1.5million. Who is going to get the bill this time? And to those who would argue that they shouldn't send so many cops, are you the same people who criticised Vancouver police after the Canucks lost in the finals, because they were not prepared, and didn't have enough officers deployed? Or do you think that situation was well-handled?
The protests in the street may put enough public pressure on the government that it will be forced to compromise, not because it believes in funding education more broadly, but because it is in danger of losing votes. Only when that happens will the tide turn.
Which brings us to la loi 78.
Read it (if you haven't already). The government's very interesting response to all this. I see this very much as speaking to their coalition, their base as it would be put in American politics. For all the bellyaching about "trampling" on "rights" this law is actually pretty tame. I think those who are complaining the loudest either haven't read it, or are lawyers who can read pretty much whatever is convenient into any law. Here's how I see it (with the benefit of a legal education, but without the burden of a law practice, haha):
The first section is essentially "back to school" legislation. It ensures that students who are not "on strike" don't get screwed over in the process. As you can see, this is the government addressing their allies, not their opponents. It is also redundant in the sense that there are already laws that prevent teachers from not teaching: their contracts, and the loi du travail, for example. In any case, the deadlines imposed here are not designed to attack the "strikers" directly, but to reach out to students who want to study.
The sections that have resulted in the charges of "trampling" are 16 and 17 (and their respective penal provisions). The law requires anyone organizing a public demonstration of 50 or more people (the link above says 10, but it was changed to 50) to advise the police of the route, and gives the police the power to modify the route if necessary. This is absolutely not an infringement of anyone's rights. What reasonable person thinks that it is ok for a large group of people to simply appear in a public place? No one does this. If I want to put on a road race, I have to get the city's permission. If someone wants to run in my race, they have to get a number. The city often denies permission for these sorts of things. The fact that the police have a direct say may seem problematic, but they are the ones that will be out there controlling the crowd. You might say, hey, the crowd is peaceful, it doesn't need controlling. True, but human behaviour works in such a way that individuals in large crowds will lose their sense of individuality and do things they would not normally do. The rudeness we encounter on airplanes, for example, is due to this effect.
Ok, you are saying now, but the idea of civil disobedience is to use a public space to make a statement about how we are unhappy with the current state of affairs, so reporting it to the police essentially sanctions actions that take their power from being unsanctioned. Fair enough, but if that is the case, why are you worried about what the law says at all? Unsanctioned is unsanctioned, pre or post loi 78. The problem is the fines. They are quite high. And here, yes, the government has come down with quite a hammer. If you read it carefully, though, you'll see the fines are between $1000 and $5000 per day (that refers to the delay in setting a schedule, so not relating to sections 16 and 17), and the large fines are only for leaders or institutions. The assumption there is that leaders of the groups would have their fines paid by the groups, and that legal bodies will pay their own way. So no ONE PERSON can be fined $25000 to $125000 for participating in a demonstration. In any case, the police have allowed to continue the large marches that, despite that sanctioning, have made a significant impact world-wide. So the law has not hurt freedom of expression, nor was that it's purpose.
The purpose of this law was to ensure public safety. Oh sure, you are saying, letting police pepper spray peaceful protestors is in the interest of public safety! I don't think that at all. The famous officer 728 is an ignorant fool. Also she has been removed of her duties. But she did not act under la loi 78. She acted as a police officer, probably pretty charged up at the situation, and she acted alone. In the video, we can hear people commenting on how none of her fellow officers are doing what she did. So the individual actions of stupid police officers is not connected to the quality of freedom of assembly or expression as impacted by la loi 78. It's two separate things.
Some perspective: it's not all about you.
What about all the people not protesting? The shop owners who fear rocks through the windows? The students who just want to finish their classes? How did these people get to be forgotten, or worse, made into the bad guys?
What is the solution? Marching raises awareness, but it has yet to turn the tide of public opinion against he government. Negotiations continue, and it is a credit to the government that they are negotiating at all. Do other special interest groups get such a prolonged sit-down with high-level politicos? The marching seems to have achieved at least this much. But it won't change the amount of money the government has to contribute, and given the political climate, as soon as they try to take that money out of someone else's pocket, that person will take to the streets as well. Perhaps it might come at the expense of bloated construction contracts? Is the student movement really ready to go up against the mob? I don't see that ending well.
And there's the dark side to this: around the world, people are protesting against their governments for things like the right to practice their religion freely, the right to vote, the right to live. It's life or death out there. All the students in the streets of Montreal, you are the 1%. Yes, you are. We all are. The 99% of the Occupy movements are missing the point that they are 99% of the top 1%. We are affluent compared to the rest of the world. I don't mean that Quebec already has cheap tuition compared to the rest of Canada. I mean, we are allowed to go to university and we have time to do it because we aren't busy just trying to stay alive. This is not life or death. This is "good life" or "ok life." Some perspective is needed.
The last thing: what are we fighting for?
Is it worth it for students to go through so much trouble to get access to university? Is it really all it is cracked up to be? I think there is a bit of a fantasy going on with respect to what one gets out of a university education, and how this benefits society. In my opinion, the number one thing that an enlightened person should have is the ability of independent thought. An enlightened citizen would be able to make his or her own, informed political decisions. Do universities promote this skill? I'm not so sure. There's a bit of a catch-22 here. In order to benefit from a lot of the reading and learning that takes place in university, you need to already have some degree of independence. Otherwise, you just believe whatever you read. But in order to develop that independence, it helps to be widely read, to get a variety of perspectives. So where do you begin?
The other problem is the idea that a university education should be tied to a job. The reality is, the two ARE tied, and the government and business like it that way. University is a kind of holding tank for the unemployed, and it's certainly a cash-cow for some. It is understand able that students don't want to go into debt over it because maybe the education they get is just not worth paying that much for. Quebec is actually far ahead of other areas because of how many people DON'T go to university: they get their 3-year DECs and find jobs that way. If you don't go to university, you have 3-5 years of your life where you can make money instead of spend it, and learn your craft, whatever it might be. Of course this doesn't apply to certain professional designations (lawyers, engineers, doctors), and to academic disciplines that are tied to the university system (scientific research). But much of the value of a liberal arts degree, for example, is in this area of independent thought. With a little encouragement, in 3-5 years, a person could do a lot of reading (probably more than they would in a degree program, because they'd read what they wanted to read, and wouldn't be bogged down with assignments and exams), and at the same time, work and make some money.
If I were a manager looking for someone to help me in my business, I would jump at the chance to hire someone like that. As much as a university degree is short-hand for an ability to think critically, be organized, and finish what you've started (or so I'm told, I have four degrees in total...lol), there's often a disconnect between the theory and the practice. As a university instructor myself, I try very hard to make my classes as engaging as possible. But the tide of perfunctory presence is strong, and also, teaching remedial English is not always the place for great revolutions in learning. Some of the longer essay-writing courses are fun, though.
I suppose my point is this: if you have the inkling of independence to actually make something of a university degree, then maybe you are better off on your own. And if you don't have it, a university degree may not get you there. I doubt that a societal shift of such magnitude is possible (achieving free tuition doesn't seem possible, and that's a lesser success than this would be), but I hope when Quebec come through the gauntlet of this saccharinely named "Maple Spring" (not Cheese Curd and Gravy Spring? No? Anybody?), the next step will not be to line up at the university gates and take their well-earned medicine, but realise that if there is power in numbers, that maybe that power should be used to enact some real change. And maybe that change isn't going to happen at university after all. Maybe it needs to happen inside you.