Read about the students who opposed the strike.

A $1,625 tuition increase over five years (2012-2017) was announced in the Quebec budget of March 2011 and was scheduled to take effect in September, 2012. Quebec’s student movement organized quickly to oppose the increase, yet local student associations waited for strategic reasons until February of 2012 before voting on mandates for an open-ended general strike (i.e. a strike of indefinite duration that would include a significant number of student unions in Quebec). From there, after the first votes succeeded, the strike movement spread like wildfire. And thanks to the unprecedented determination of the strikers, it ended up being the longest, most widespread, most media-reported (and most repressed) student strike in the province’s history.

Only historians, perhaps, will someday be able to explain this rather incredible alignment of the stars. I, for my part, will present the arguments that CLASSE (the Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante— the national student association that played the most decisive role in waging this year’s student strike in Quebec) put forward in the tuition debate. CLASSE represented the first local organizations to take the plunge in February and according to the Système d’information sur la grève générale illimitée, it represented 53.8% of the strikers until the adoption of Bill 78—the government’s controversial and draconian anti-protest law—on May 17, 2012.

The first section of this article deals with the rationale behind CLASSE’s position against rising tuition, while the second section summarizes what CLASSE actually proposes as an alternative to the increase, including the ways in which we could eventually implement free post-secondary education in Quebec.

CLASSE and IRIS: silencing the siren song of the free market

Two documents describe the main arguments used by CLASSE in its campaign against a tuition increase. The first is CLASSE’s official “argumentaire” for 2011–2012. The second is a brochure written by a progressive research institute in Quebec called l’Institut de recherche et d’information socioéconomiques (IRIS), that explains in eight simple arguments why “no” should be the answer to the question, “do we really need to raise tuition fees?” These documents refute the three key pro-increase arguments:

Argument 1: A fee increase is the only way to bail out the universities so that they can maintain quality education.

First, according to CLASSE and IRIS, underfunding is not a problem for universities in Quebec. Indeed, CLASSE points out that since 2003-2004, the annual operating subsidies paid by the government to universities actually increased from $1.9 billion to $2.9 billion. That said, as IRIS writes, “[t]he amount of grants and research contracts allocated to universities has more than doubled from 1995–1996 to 2005–2006, swelling from $721 million to $1.276 billion in constant 2006 dollars.” More money goes into universities than ever, IRIS concludes, but that money is spent mainly on research activities, especially in the flourishing sector of commercially-oriented research. Universities therefore do not suffer from underfunding, IRIS and CLASSE argue, but are actually misallocating their funding (transferring funds within universities to the detriment of teaching and operating budgets).

Second, for IRIS and CLASSE, higher tuition does not necessarily mean higher quality education. In fact, since a tuition fee increase means students incur more debt and must spend more time doing paid work, higher tuition is likely to reduce the overall time students spend studying. Teachers may consequently have to lower their evaluation standards to maintain acceptable grade point averages in their classes. Far from improving the quality of education, rising tuition may have the exact opposite effect.

Argument 2: Higher tuition will have no impact on university participation.

IRIS argues that this is patently false, estimating that increasing tuition to match the Canadian average (which roughly corresponds to the announced increase), would deny 30,000 students access to university studies. IRIS also points out the internal contradiction inherent in the Quebec government’s claims that increased hydro-electricity fees will help to reduce energy consumption, but that an increase in tuition fees will not affect higher education participation rates.

IRIS also says that students should not count on the government’s financial assistance program to offset the increase for all students. A startling 83% of students will be ineligible for the program, even when initial improvements proposed by the government are taken into account. In an attempt to satisfy the strikers, the government did grant additional funds for financial assistance; this, however, did not impress the Advisory Committee on the Financial Accessibility of Education(or the student strikers), which expressed concerns that this assistance would primarily consist of new loans, thereby increasing student debt.

Furthermore, CLASSE and IRIS point out that in addition to its negative effect on university participation, the tuition increase may transform the socio-economic composition of the student population, as it may lead to an underrepresentation of lower-income individuals in post-secondary education. IRIS points out that many students will agree to go into more debt in order to pay their tuition, but this will likely influence their career choices—they will increasingly be forced to choose programs based on employment prospects rather than personal preferences.

Argument 3: Higher tuition fees will ensure that students pay their fair share in tuition.

This is, without a doubt, the main argument used by the government to defend the tuition increase. In the government’s A Fair and Balanced University Funding Plan, the Minister of Finance explained that, “the tuition fee increase [would] bring these fees to the level they were at in 1968, if inflation were taken into account.”

From the outset, IRIS challenged that notion of “fair share” by asking why an increase in tuition would necessarily be fairer than low tuition or even free education. As for the choice of 1968 as a year of reference to establish today’s “fair share,” IRIS finds it rather arbitrary. The public network of universities in Quebec was only founded in 1969. IRIS notes that if we consider the increase in the proportion of the provincial budget dedicated to university funding that resulted from the creation of public universities, “it is no surprise that the share of funding provided by tuition fees has fallen over the years.” That said, IRIS proposes another method to evaluate the fairness of tuition for students: instead of comparing past and present tuition rates, we should compare the number of working hours at minimum wage that would be necessary to pay for tuition in the past as compared to the present. IRIS calculates that, “with the expected increase, students will have to work twice as long as students in the 1970s to pay off their education.” Needless to say, IRIS believes the assumptions behind the government’s “fair share” argument are misleading at best.

Moreover, CLASSE notes that the “fair share” argument suggests that the freezing of tuition fees in Quebec from 1968 to 1990 and from 1994 to 2007 was a historical mistake to be corrected. The Liberals seemed to suggest that every government in power over that period had somehow ignored the fact that the share paid by students in tuition was not a fair one. Such a dishonest argument must be denounced, CLASSE argued, as it failed to acknowledge the social choice that was explicitly made in Quebec in the 1960s (see, for example, the famous Parent Report) to consider education a common good to be funded collectively through taxes to ensure accessibility for all. CLASSE concludes straightforwardly: “for us, the answer to, ‘What is the students’ “fair share”?’ is simple: “to devote themselves to their studies seriously, then, when entering the labour market, to participate in the collective financial effort at the height of their financial capacity through the tax system.”

In short, IRIS and CLASSE reject the “fair share” argument by affirming it is nebulous, based on misleading assessments and, most of all, carries an individualistic and consumerist conception of education which runs contrary to the spirit of post-secondary education in Quebec since the 1960s.

Taken together, the counter-arguments presented in these three points form the vision of education and society advocated by IRIS and CLASSE. According to this vision, the primary purpose of education is not solely to serve the labour market and national economic competitiveness. Rather, education should develop citizens who can think critically, and develop professionals with a broad education who are not shackled by overspecialization. For Iris and CLASSE, people’s principles and values should determine their economic choices, and not the other way around. Not only is this model desirable, but it is also economically feasible.

CLASSE’s solution: free tuition

On April 27th, 2012, the Quebec government introduced a “package deal” of proposals in an attempt to resolve the student conflict, which at that point had already gone on for more than two months. Notably, it

offered to spread the tuition increase over seven years instead of five and to implement modest improvements to the financial assistance program. CLASSE considered this offer to be insufficient with regard to the movement’s demands and leverage and rejected it, alongside all of Quebec’s national student unions. CLASSE then responded with a counter-offer.

First, CLASSE proposed transferring $142 million in commercially-oriented research funding to teaching, without affecting basic research funding. CLASSE expected that this would serve to effectively reduce the private sector outsourcing of research and development to universities that has been on the rise since 2000. CLASSE believes that as a consequence of this reallocation of funds, universities would be allowed to once again honour their core mission of freely imparting knowledge through teaching.

Second, CLASSE observed that, as a result of the growing competition between universities, universities dedicate considerable portions of their budgets to advertising campaigns. CLASSE estimates that over the last five years, universities in Quebec invested a total of $80 million in advertising. If such commercial expenses were banned, CLASSE argues, universities could annually invest $18 million in teaching instead.

CLASSE thus calculates that these two measures combined would make available a sum of $160 million—the same amount of funds expected to be raised through the tuition increase, making the policy unnecessary.

Yet CLASSE did not stop there. To ensure that this $160 million would not be reallocated to anything other than access to education and teaching, it proposed three other measures. First, it demanded a freeze on university executives’ wages, which have exploded in recent years. CLASSE believes the increase in Quebec Universities (UQ ) executives’ wages by 83% between 1997 and 2004, is excessive. Second, CLASSE demanded a moratorium on the construction of university satellite campuses, which have mushroomed in recent years. Although they generate substantial costs, CLASSE claims that there is no evidence that they have a positive effect on university participation. Third, echoing the claims of many teacher unions in Quebec, CLASSE asks that national États généraux on education be convened with various civil society representatives. On the occasion of such a meeting, CLASSE would advocate for the introduction of free tuition fees at all school levels. This would be paid for by the introduction, over five years, of a 7% tax on capital for financial institutions only. In Quebec, financial institutions actually pay less in taxes than all other types of corporations, despite making record profits in recent years. For CLASSE, that new tax would allow the state to recover $410 million, which is exactly the cost of free education according to l’Institut de recherche en économie contemporaine (IREC).

Basically, CLASSE believes that Quebec has the financial means necessary to completely abolish tuition fees for education, and that the government should urgently do so to preserve the core mission of education and ensure greater social justice.

Conclusion: for they know what they do

It is quite possible, for various reasons, to disagree with the positions defended by CLASSE during the strike of 2012. However, no one can accuse CLASSE of not having shown constant concern to document, articulate and popularize its positions on rising tuition fees in Quebec. The authors of the IRIS document referred to above, namely Simon Tremblay Pepin and Éric Martin, actually presented their arguments against the increase at dozens of conferences throughout Quebec prior to the strike. Éric Martin even elaborated upon those arguments in a short book entitled, Université Inc., that he wrote with Maxime Ouellet, also from IRIS, and which has reached a fairly large readership in Quebec. CLASSE, for its part, in addition to the workshops it regularly holds for students, spent the whole summer of 2012 traveling across Quebec with its Nous sommes avenir popular education tour.

In this regard, and despite having been the target of a de-legitimization campaign by some media, CLASSE made it possible for the 2012 student strike to build deep ideological opposition to the tuition increase. For many students, the strike was the first time in their lives that they were given the opportunity to consider seriously their political values and choose a side. And while it may not have been fully grasped by all, this rise in political consciousness has been felt throughout Quebec and may transform the political history of the province in ways we have not yet imagined. 

Martin Robert has been active in the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ) – which became CLASSE for the 2012 student strike – where he was elected to the research and publications committees. He is pursuing a master’s degree in History the Université du Québec à Montreal (UQAM).