Let’s give the protesters what they want

Paul Wells: After thinking about it for three months, close to half the population is with the protesters

Graham Hughes/CP Images

Three months in, it’s getting harder to dismiss the Montreal tuition protesters as a tiny bunch of malcontents. It’s true that they are calling for the perpetuation of Canada’s best bargain in higher education. It’s true that the active, on-the-street protesters represent a minority of the student population and a smaller minority of the larger student-age population.

But the protesters are not alone against the rest of Quebec. They have had substantial popular support at every stage of this dispute. And as the conflict settles in and becomes more bitter, support for the protesters has grown. A Léger poll for QMI last week showed that 43 per cent of respondents were “more favourable to the student position,” which the poll defined as a continued freeze on tuitions. That’s a nine-point increase in support in 11 days, thanks largely to a tough law the Charest government passed to increase restrictions and penalties for protesting. To sum up, after thinking about it for three months, close to half the population is with the protesters. So are many editorialists and the members of Arcade Fire.

My hunch is that if Charest could back down, he would. He spent most of his career as premier demonstrating that he doesn’t actually care whether Quebec’s universities are underfunded. He maintained a tuition freeze for his first four years in office, then increased tuitions at $50 a semester until this year. During that time, Quebec’s university rectors say, the annual funding shortfall in Quebec’s universities, relative to those in the rest of the country, increased from $375 million to more than $620 million.

So having finally tried a more rapid increase in the cost of higher education, and found it to be unpleasant, I’m sure Charest would be delighted to go back to his previous lethargy on the file. But he can’t. A lot of Quebecers are blocking his escape route: having suffered through 100 days of protests, they don’t want to be told their effort was wasted.

This is what a stalemate looks like. The protesters won’t back down on their dreams of collectivist higher education. The government can’t back down on its tuition increase. What’s to be done?

Solomon would say it’s time to cut the baby in two.

You can’t have a university system in which education is free for everyone, at the same time you have a system where complex modern research and teaching are funded at healthy levels through various means, including high tuition rates paid by those students who can afford to pay. So stop having one system.

I’m proposing that Charest stop worrying about whether most of the province’s universities get adequate funding. Since quality of education, measured according to bourgeois notions like class size and research infrastructure, does not matter to much of the province’s population and to its better rock musicians, Charest should write most of Quebec’s universities off as lost. The provincial rectors’ association lists 18 member institutions. Convert, say, 15 of them to communal teach-in facilities where tuition would be frozen, substantially reduced or, what the heck, eliminated. Students could make nightly bonfires, periodically instruct faculty on the proper interpretation of Heidegger, and otherwise live the dream.

At a much smaller number of institutions —here I’m thinking of McGill and the Université de Montréal—tuition fees would float as high as the administration wanted them to go. A portion of increased revenue would pay for enriched aid for low-income students. The remaining extra money would go toward offering a learning and research environment comparable to what prevails in those parts of the world where Arcade Fire has not yet smashed the one per cent.

Important decisions would need to be taken at the margin. Should Laval University in Quebec City be a tuition-free zone, or a third gated Grande École? What about the HEC business school in Montreal? Is it really fair for two of Montreal’s four big universities to be cloisters of snooty inequality, given that most of the protesters and their supporters are in Montreal? Maybe McGill could move to the Saguenay, or to Chelsea, a short drive from Ottawa. Let the protesters have the metropolis they want. Maybe if McGill doesn’t move, a small tuition-free enclave could be set up within its gates. Protesters could march out of their enclosure and complain about the elitism of the rest of the campus, every day at noon. Sort of like the bagpiper at Ogilvy’s department store, but with balaclavas.

I’m not serious. But interesting things would happen if Quebec tried such a thing. What would happen to enrolment at the low-tuition schools versus the others? Which schools would attract private philanthropy? How would the employment rates of different schools’ graduates compare? The protesters like to argue that education is a public good with no private benefit for the individual. Maybe they just haven’t had a chance to create schools where that’s the case. Yet.

In a province that simultaneously permitted contrasting models of higher education, a lively debate over the goals of an education would be guaranteed. In Quebec, thanks to Charest’s late start and lousy execution, it’s fast becoming impossible.