On Campus

Premier Marois' missed opportunity

Protest proves Quebec tuition debate is far from over

There was a loud bang and some smoke. I looked around—was that a stun grenade?

Sure enough, a young man in front of me turned around, his face contorted, hands clasped over his ears. Yes, that was a stun grenade.

Click for photos from the demonstration.

Thousands of protesting students, led by the radical Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ), clashed with cops in the east end of Montreal and got pepper spray, tear gas and stun grenades in return on Tuesday afternoon following Quebec’s big education summit.

Across town at the summit, the collegial attitude of the moderate Fédération Etudiante Universitaire du Québec (FEUQ) and Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec (FECQ) student factions was greeted with handshaking and the imposition of a year three per cent tuition hike.

The protesting students in the east end chanted, “Parti Quebecois: Parti Bourgeoise!” They denounced erstwhile student leader cum PQ golden boy Léo Bureau-Blouin who ditched FECQ* for a seat in the National Assembly. They mocked former ally, now premier, Pauline Marois. They demanded the abolition of tuition fees.

The negotiating students—social traitors, as the ASSÉ calls them—debated what their short end of the bargain would look like. Marois, taking a cue from the Montreal police, divided and conquered. Once a coy conspirator in the dream for free tuition, she quickly became a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Not long after her victory, she lobbed a sort of stun grenade at Quebec’s universities. Find $250 million in savings, half by the end of this year, she told them, or—much like the Sword of Damocles hanging over America’s finances right now—the cuts will be automatic and deep.

Despite committing to a tuition freeze, Marois is raising tuition—indexing it to the average family disposable income, about three per cent a year. Don’t worry, she said, it’s practically a freeze.

Except that it isn’t. While family wages may be rising overall, income for young Quebecers and single-parent families is not, according to Statistics Quebec and estimates. Those aged 15 to 24 have seen their wages rise only 1.6 per cent a year from 2008 to 2011. Single-parent households, meanwhile, have seen their disposable income rise by a mere 1.4 per year from 2003 to 2012.

Never mind that the measly $12 million raised by the tuition hike won’t even begin to cover the $250-millon in cuts. With every decision comes an opportunity cost. Putting money here means taking it from there. Opening the door to one policy means shutting the door on another.

But there’s a balance to be struck, somewhere, and Marois should recognize that there are more variables than provincial transfers and tuition fees. That’s Marois’ opportunity cost—choosing to pull another brick from the Jenga tower, instead of questioning the structure itself.

François Legault, leader of the Coalition Avenir Quebec political party, summed up the PQ’s strategy and the summit when he said, “there was no vision.” No vision for increasing accessibility. No vision for improving quality. No vision for engaging students.

Why not look at the massive private infrastructure and research slush funds that the universities are dumping money into? Why not look at inflated ancillary fees—the ones former premier Jean Charest singled out to offset his own hike? Why not look at some level of free post-secondary?

The best the students got was two spending oversight mechanisms, feel-good policies that will tackle some administrative spending, but do little to address structural deficits.

Marois is readying her zip-tie plastic handcuffs. Quebec shouldn’t let itself get sentenced to another decade of anachronistic education policy. Marois shouldn’t continue the tradition of kicking the can a little ways down the road. If she does, the future looks hazy with tear gas.

*This post was updated to correct an error. Bureau-Blouin left FECQ, not FEUQ.