For and Against the Quebec Student “Strike”

When the Quebec student protest (it’s not actually a “strike”) started heating up a few weeks ago I found myself falling into the standard trap of people like me — people who have been out of school for some time and who, rightfully or not, tend to see the current crop of young people as perhaps a bit too entitled and completely unaware of how good they have it. After all, tuition in Quebec is lower than anywhere else in Canada, and has been since as long as I can remember.

And indeed that is a trap. I like to call it the “geezer trap,” as it is the most likely hole for people of a certain age to fall into. That’s not to say there aren’t younger people who feel the same way, but for them I blame ignorance.

To cut a long blog post short, I’ll just say that I know the burden of student debt, so I can relate to their concern. It took me almost 10 years to pay off my student loans, and during my first four years post-university, I didn’t know how I would be able do it.

The amount I had to pay seems rather small in retrospect; $16,000 in official student loans plus another $3000 in short-term loans and credit card debt that I acquired while trying to launch myself into a post-university, so-called “real life.” (I knew people who were paying that muct just to get a car.) But you have to consider that I was not graduating with a degree in video game design or object-oriented programming. There were virtually no jobs available to me with my lowly bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology. It took three years before I found a job that had the slightest hint of a career path, and that job paid only $6.50 an hour. (I quit a $7.00 an hour dead-end job to take it.)

Kids these days (ha! I just had to say that) seem to think that everything was all rosy and filled with unicorns in times past and now is the only era of bleakness. Not so. When I started university in 1983 the national unemployment rate was 12%. By the time I graduated it was down to 9% but it went north of 10% by 1991. Those are national averages; for people in my geographic and demographic groups the rates were consistently higher by three or four percentage points. Today’s national unemployment rate of 7.2% seems rather glorious by comparison.

But I’m not going to dig deeper into the geezer trap by yammering on about how tough I had it. But I will say this: from the point-of-view of freshly-graduated me looking forward from 1987, things looked very bleak indeed. Big debt, high unemployment, and few personal prospects. Adding weight to that burden was the fact that I was coming from a bleak place with a long history of unemployment and minimal prospects, so I started off having very little hope. I went off to university not because it was expected, but because I forced myself out of a quagmire of defeat and dispair and got myself some education with the hope of smartening myself up and improving my prospects a little.

In 1987, 88, and 89, those prospects seemed worse than ever. Now, in 2012, 20-plus years into a fairly interesting and reasonably lucrative career, it’s easy to dismiss my youthful worries. That too is part of the geezer trap, although there is potentially a positive “it gets better” type of message in there, if anyone’s looking.

While I probably won’t remember your name two minutes after we meet, I do remember how defeated I felt in those few years after university, and how empty the future looked. I remember how that debt felt like a ball and chain, keeping me from having the kind of life that people in their 20s are supposed to have. I also remember that despite all that, I was always very grateful for the student loans I was able to procure, and how the annual increase in tuition fees at my university always felt like a stab in the gut. (For perspective, the tuition for two semesters in my final year was about $1600. That was 1986-87.)

I maintain that one should pay for the things one receives, but I also think that we all, as a society, benefit from an educated population. (Please re-read that last line and ponder it. Save us both the bother of me writing 1000 words on how important it is to have an educated population, as that should go without saying.)

Surely there’s a balance point that places less burdent on the students, particularly when you remember that not all of those students are there to “train” for high paying jobs. They all bring something valuable to our society, and not all of them will be engineers and doctors.

I agree with many who acknowledge that the price of tuition should go up somewhat, but I also agree with many who feel that the currently proposed increases are way too much, way too fast.

What I cannot agree with are the tactics the student protesters are using. Boycotting classes hurts themselves and their fellow students who may not want to boycott classes. Their practice of disrupting public transit and bridge traffic only turns public opinon against them. Then there are the recent acts of vandalism, including failed Molotov cocktails and throwing bricks on the Metro tracks, that may or may not be associated with the student protest. That’s where they are really shooting themselves in their collective foot, because the only way the student protests will have any effect is if they can create and then ride a wave of positive public opinion.

Pissing the public off only plays into the government’s hand. It’s bad enough that there is a general perception that today’s youth are spoiled with self-entitlements and their discontent is just them crying like children under threat of having their candy taken away (I tend to believe that does define a minority of todays’ youth — as it always has). But when you pile that perception on top of public disruptions, all wrapped in a fog of conflicting information on how much money we’re really talking about, then you have a very strong formula for protest failure.

I doubt the tactics will change, so I doubt the tuition increases will be stopped. That is unfortunate, as it will cause some students to drop out of their studies, and it will place a large burden of debt on those who do manage to finish.

As for those of you who are stuck in the geezer trap and can’t take your eyes off that “lowest tuition in Canada” factoid, it’s a false argument to compare the fees of Quebec students with those from other provinces and other countries, because the question is not “why shouldn’t Quebec students pay as much as others?” The question is the simpler and un-relative “how much should Quebec students pay?”

7 thoughts on “For and Against the Quebec Student “Strike”

  1. My mother’s mother wouldn’t have been able to complete her university studies without scholarships, and my mother’s father wouldn’t have been able to attend at all. She earned a PhD in microbiology and went on to develop a process for the industrial production of penicillin for the WHO, in her own lab in Rome. He earned a PhD in agronomy and went on to be dean at McGill.

    It’s great that they were able to win scholarships, but you shouldn’t have to be that calibre of person to get the necessary support to afford university. Most of us aren’t. We won’t win scholarships and we won’t participate significantly in any kind of major development. Still, we and the society we participate in benefit from our educations.

    Also, I dearly hope that whoever is looking after things and voting and wiping my ass in fifty years is going to be able to think about the state of the world and the country and professional relationships in a thoughtful and informed way.

    So this morning when I heard about the bricks and the molotov cocktails I thought Oh Crap, people are going to be pissed off at the students. And I quickly cut out a red square to pin to my corporate suit. (Fascinatingly, I also produced the thought that maybe these were the doings of the PLQ. I’ve never been subject to this sort of paranoid raving. I think this is the first time for me. The crankiness of advancing age? Appropriate cynicism? Whichever, the thought was immediately dismissed.)

  2. They should pay their fair share however much that is. All this noise for 325 bucks which they could have easily made on the side during the first week of protests…

    Higher education is not a right as these dweebs proclaim. It’s a privilege and you should pay dearly for such a privilege. They should be as stressed as much as any university student around the globe. Eat Ramen noodles and work on the side, for all I care. I had to struggle too, just like you Ed.

    Quebec has raised a generation of socialists who expect the government to provide for it. Now that the Quebec government is running low on cash and is trying to cut back, it is experiencing the “Greek Affect”, if you don’t given me what I want I will burn your house down.

  3. Emilio, as I said in my post, I’m trying not to fall into the geezer trap of “it was hard for me so therefore it should be hard for everyone.”

    Also, it’s not a question of $325. That’s a very misunderstood number because it only represents the increase for the first year. According to the proposed plan, the it will be $1625 more by 2016-17.

    Again, I do think people should pay for what they receive from society, but I’m not convinced it has to be a struggle or that it should only be for those who have the means to pay such fees without such a struggle.

  4. The last time there was a tuition increase, it was 1991 (according to a search I made).

    I couldn’t think of searchwords to find when before that they went up. I know tuition increases have been either announced or not quite announced, and the reaction is constant, “no tuition increases”. It’s never gone this far, but it’s always been the same sort of noisy go in here and leave after making a disturbance protest.

    And generally, there have been no tuition increases.

    Which means that the point of the jump being too large may simply mean it’s compensating for the years when the government wanted to increase tuition, but backed down.


  5. Note the Engineering and Computer Science students aren’t participating. But they have their work-terms which bring in sufficient money to allow them to live fairly comfortably during the times when they’re going to school. The arts students are still working at the type of jobs where they earn minimum wage. So they have a lot more at stake here. And they will not necessarily get any better jobs than Blork did when they get out. I’m with Blork. I think that the better educated the majority of a society’s people are, the better off everyone is. Also, I remember sitting in the metro and reading about the tuition hikes in the early eighties and thinking, “I’m never going to get back to school. I can’t earn enough money between terms at the type of dead-end jobs that I’ve been doing.” I can still remember that feeling of devastation and, because of that, I can empathize with today’s (and tomorrow’s) students over the fight they’re having now.

  6. I’ve been on the fence too. I got no money from my parents to study, though I was encouraged to stay at home if I wanted to. I had two jobs (sometimes three) during my full time b.a. and my master’s, and I had 14,000$ in debt when I got out of college. Took me a little less than 10 years to pay it back, I think. And I got no big job straight out of college either.

    One of the things that bugs me is the feeling that the younger generation is not expecting to have to work: parents my age are fully intending on paying for their children’s full course of study, and sometimes even for their apartment. They say the “job” of a student is to study, not to work. And the kids are fine with it, of course.

    If the parents have a lot of money, then it’s not a big issue. But a lot of parents are going to get deeper in debt just to put their kids through school. It just seems normal these days. People see it as their duty as a parent. It drives me nuts. What are we teaching them when we are willing to give them things so easily?

    But like Ed, I’m trying to put my “geezer” feelings aside and realize that part of my strong reaction to this situation is pure envy. I wish that my parents had been able to help me. I wish it had been easier. I wish that my parents generation (and economical class) had believed that a college education was a fondamental thing. But I would have never asked them to get in debt for me. I knew I had to do my part. This was the time in my life when my adult choices started. Mom and dad had to do it for themselves. It was my turn. (I have to admit though that lodging was cheaper back then – proportionally – and it seemed like the student fees were better used than they are now by the universities’ administrations.)

    Anyway, all of this has changed for me in the last few days, culminating with the amazingly arrogant jokes our prime minister made during his Salon du Plan Nord speech yesterday. The issue is bigger now: it’s about corruption, contempt, democracy and respect. We’re getting too much of the first two and not enough of the last two. We really need elections right now. Unfortunately, we’ll probably have to wait two more years. Let’s hope people won’t have “la mémoire courte”.

  7. Is it time to say “in retrospect” yet?

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