Why student protests don’t work

Tuition keeps rising despite street protests


Today, students in Montreal set off smoke bombs in the offices of Quebecor, a large media and retail company who owns the Sun newspaper chain, as part of a protest against tuition increases. Last week students in Nova Scotia had their annual “day of action” protest against tuition hikes. In the U.K., tuition massive tuition hikes lead to months of protests.

Student protests against tuition increases are a regular event in Canada. Yet tuition continues to rise. Even the extremely large and sometimes violent protests in Britain failed to convince the government to change course.

Why? Because in electoral democracies street protests generally don’t work.

Certainly there are some times when street protests may be effective, the large protests against Canada’s participation in the invasion of Iraq were at least indicative of public sentiment and may indeed have have helped keep our country out of that war.

But they don’t help when it comes to tuition because students don’t vote in elections.

Contrary to popular belief, governments don’t have endless supplies of money, more funding for education means one of two things: taxes have to go up or something else has to be cut. The Canadian Federation of Students has made it clear that they support tax increases to fund education, while other student groups have at times called for unspecified spending cuts (I once asked a student politician what he thought the government should cut, perhaps health care or elementary school funding? He was unable to answer the question).

The fact is that government policy is shaped by the desire to remain in power, no party typifies this more than the federal Conservatives, while opposition policy is shaped by the goal of gaining power, the federal Liberals for instance. It is only those parties that have no chance of being elected, the Greens, the NDP and those parties on your ballot you’ve never heard of before (there are two communist parties in my riding now?), for whom ideology figures as anything more than an obstacle.

How do you get elected? You please the voters. Not the general public, not the people protesting in the streets but those people who are more likely to vote. This is why health care is a sacred cow, while international students are cash cows. Older people, those more likely to use the health care system, vote. International students can’t and their Canadian colleagues don’t.

For the same reason, taxes won’t go up to pay for post-secondary education, older higher-income people are the most likely to vote, while young people are the least likely.

If anything, protests are probably hurting the cause. Direct action has a tendency to preach to the converted, people who already think students are self-interested whiners aren’t going to be impressed by street theatre – it’s only going to reinforce their previously held positions.

Chanting catchy slogans along with a like-minded crowd is a great feeling but it’s not going to change a politician’s mind.

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Why student protests don’t work

  1. The fact that the Quebec student strike of 2005 worked pretty damn well undercuts much of your article.

  2. How about when the CFS organized 100,000 people onto the streets back in the 90’s and convinced the government to drop income contingent loans?

    Seriously, do some freaking research.

  3. “Why? Because in electoral democracies street protests generally don’t work.”

    Except when they do, as you mention in your very next paragraph? Way to go on the research.

  4. This op-ed should be passed out to first year journalism students as an example of what not to do.

  5. What needs to change is the operating costs of universities.

    I have recently worked in HR at a prestigious Canadian university. It bleeds money. It bleeds because of the useless faculty that won’t retire; because of celeb-faculty with huge expense accounts; because of tenure; because of lifetime staff who still don’t know how to use computers but must be kept on because of union contracts; because of over-paid executives and because every contractor hired to do something for the university bills as much as they can.

    As enrollment drops tuition MUST be raised to compensate. Students can push back on tuition but, the vampire is hungry.

  6. Two nova scotia related issues:
    “Last week students in Nova Scotia had their annual “day of action” protest against tuition hikes. ”
    It isn’t an annual event. I think that the last one took place in 2006 or 2008.

    “It is only those parties that have no chance of being elected, the Greens, the NDP … for whom ideology figures as anything more than an obstacle.”
    The NDP have a majority government in NS right now.

  7. If you want to publish an editorial about theories of political and social change, please request it from someone who studies or works in that field. Fast food poli sci theories invented by journalism students do little to advance the conversation, aside from provoking petty student politics debates, which probably generate 90% of the traffic to Macleans OnCampus.

  8. This article was pretty unimpressive. If you believe that protest don’t work, then support that claim with evidence and not fallacious statements like,”Because in electoral democracies street protests generally don’t work”. I am pretty sure you can do better next time.


  9. Wow, a neoliberal student who has so internalized historical blindness and hostility to social movements that he fails to realize that his article completely sucks. With any luck this will merely further erode Maclean’s undeserved reputation for quality journalism. At any rate what is certain is that student activists don’t give a damn what Serebrin has to say.

  10. It takes a reckless lack of care to post an article panning the power of student protest in the same week that student protests forced the U. of Puerto Rico President to step down, and to declare that “protest doesn’t work” in light of the situation in Egypt. I mean, you’re certainly entitled to your opinion, but you should make an effort to phrase it as such, particularly when considered in the light of the manifold factual inaccuracies in the rest of the article as outlined above.

    Pretty terrible, guy.

  11. Pingback: But university students do vote – - Macleans OnCampus

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