In February, the Liberal government in Quebec, led by Jean Charest, announced a proposed tuition fee hike of 82% to be phased in over the next five years. This dynamic is by now becoming familiar, as are the justifications. Charest argued that the fee increase was intended to bring Quebec’s universities in line with neighboring provinces. Even after the tuition fee hike, it was argued, students in Quebec would be paying less than students in other parts of Canada, not to mention America or even the UK. The fees were about making things more ‘equal’ but they were also about ‘economic common sense’: how could Quebec’s universities compete globally without financial contributions? This is the same form of argument that justifies the commodification of knowledge, privatization of university spaces and the subordination of research and teaching to vacuous output measures.
The response in Quebec has been striking for two reasons.
Firstly, there has been an overwhelming and sustained rejection of the proposed hike by the student population. This is partly explained by a strong history of social and political struggle but there is always more to such events than ‘historical’ causality. For a good overview of the strategy and organization of the movement check out Peter Hallward’s article from a couple of months ago. What marks the student movement out is their commitment to being the ‘public’ willing to fight for their right to a public good: education. In contrast, economists, politicians and media continue to argue that fee increases are just a necessary part of making a ‘competitive university system’, part of a route back to economic growth. The same cold logic used to justify every attack on social life: there is no other way.
Secondly, the strength and solidarity of the student struggle over three months and counting, including a general strike on attending classes, and culminating in a massive turn out of 100,000 students to mark the 100th day of the protest, led to the introduction of ‘Law 78’, commonly known as the ‘truncheon law’. This banned protests in or around university campuses and restricted popular assemblies. Amnesty described the law as ‘violating freedoms of speech, assembly and movement in breach of Canada’s international obligations.’ This draconian response says much about the efficacy of the student movement, and their ungovernability through ‘normal’ mechanisms of control and pacification. The response has been a broadening of social and political disaffection as large numbers of the wider population have come out to support the students: up to 300,000 in cacerolazo, or pot-clanging protests organised through neighborhoods. This broadening of the movement is not just due to outrage against the law but to growing commonality with students, a commonality which has been forged through shared nightly protests but also through public assemblies, the new form of democratic commons which has become so prevalent in the past few years. In the case of Quebec commonality is also being found in the common condition of debt faced by growing numbers of citizens. The dominant symbol of the movement was the red square, with the slogan ‘carrément dans la rouge’, which means ‘squarely in the red’, a potent symbol for us all.
For more visit the website of Classe, the umbrella organization for a number of student groups involved in the movement.