Quebec students want access to education for all

By Pat Watson Wednesday May 02 2012 in Opinion
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Quebec’s university students have been on ‘strike’ for the past 11 weeks and they do not appear intent on returning to class anytime soon. They are protesting over tuition increases despite having the lowest tuition rates in the country. And a lot of the older folks are saying the kids should stop this adventuring and get back to class.


These are the types who have completely forgotten what it is like to be young and idealist and to have the fire for a cause.


No great social change ever came from ‘keeping calm and carrying on’, the appeal of that kind of Canadian ‘law, order and good governance’ stoicism notwithstanding.


Responding to the student protests, Quebec Premier Jean Charest is working on coming to some compromise by offering that the planned $1,625 tuition increase would be spread over seven years instead of the five years previously planned. So far, student groups haven’t accepted this adjustment.


It seems that, as with all things in Quebec compared to the rest of Canada, the values and understanding about how things are supposed to work, the social contract between the citizenry and politicians, have their own particular character. As the French saying goes, ‘à chacun son gout’.


As one protester, an unemployed social worker put it, they are not just protesting future tuition hikes but “the entire capitalist, neo-liberal context that over time ends up having a very harmful impact, both locally and internationally, on the environment and on humanity”.


That’s big stuff. It sounds like the kind of talk you would hear from the Occupy Movement.


The problem with the students’ demand is that the money is going to have to come from somewhere, if not from students, to pay for the rising cost of education. Across the country billions in loans and subsidies are already available to students and the terms for repayment have become more sensitive to the fact that not everyone will be employed right after graduating.


But that is of little comfort to those who are not sure how their future as university graduates will justify the cost of the education they are being told they must have in order to be seriously considered for employment these days.


There are those who will argue that the reasons many face poor prospects for employment is that students are taking degrees in areas that will not fit into the job demands of the future. There is an increasing need for engineers of all kinds and more technical hard skills. Most companies do not offer training as in the past and expect job applicants to have been trained before applying.


So these are uncertain times for any young person considering his or her future. Yet, the benefit of a university education cannot be denied. For those who have a mind for it, a university education can be the next step in a better understanding of the world around us through the kind of structured study that arena allows.


As the debate over whether universities should do more than engage intellectual development continues, it is clear that the rise of colleges and institutions such as Ryerson University, which began life as a polytechnic institute, are what will carry the future for those who are seeking not just higher learning, but also skills.


What the Quebec students are standing on is the principle that everyone should have access to higher education and an increase in tuition fees would prevent that from happening. They have a point. Yet, while it is a good one, the question of how to ensure the financial viability of equal accessibility to higher education for all in a restricted economy is still unanswered.


A note on 20 years come and gone so fast…


It was in March of 1991 that African American Rodney King, then 25, was stopped by Los Angeles police and subsequently beaten. The event, caught on videotape and replayed for all to judge, outraged many in America and beyond. The four police officers were not found guilty of the assault by an all-White jury. Then came the riots in South Los Angeles and other spontaneous riots in sympathy including one on Yonge Street here in Toronto.


May 1, 1992, three days into the riots, King, looking vastly different from the swollen face that he was left with after the beating, called on rioters to stop.

It wasn’t poetry, but King said it came from his heart: “People, I just want to say, can we all get along? Can we get along? We’ve just got to, just got to. We’re all stuck here for a while…let’s try to work it out.”



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