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No End in Sight for Tuition Hike Dispute Between Quebec’s Government, University Students

(Photo: Socialist Canada / Flickr)

Fortunately for English speakers following the now 11-weeks-long student protests in Quebec, the growing dissent against a 75 percent university tuition hike in Canada’s francophone province comes with visual aids.

Like the drawing of Minister of Education Line Beauchamp, clad in what look like religious robes, a rope belt around her waist and a cross around her neck – and clutching in both hands a metal-studded baseball bat. The cartoon Beachamp’s face manages to look both saintly and furious.

The image ran in the November issue of Ultimatum, a journal published by the student group CLASSE, one of three student organizations representing a total of 280,000. Over 175,000 students throughout Quebec have stopped attending classes in a strike against a proposed $1,625 increase over five years in the province, where tuition has up to now been the lowest in Canada. Negotiations between the government and students broke down Wednesday April 25 when Beauchamp ejected CLASSE representatives from the talks, citing what she claims is its tacit approval of property destruction and violence. (CLASSE, which is governed by a consensus model similar to the general assemblies that have become a common model in the Occupy movement, has said it does not have a mandate to condemn such actions.)

The two student groups with a less militant image, the Federation of Quebec University Students (FEUQ by its French acronym) and the Federation of Quebec College Students (FECQ), refuse to continue without CLASSE, but Beauchamp has refused to readmit the third group to the negotiating table.

According to FECQ President Leo Bureau-Blouin, Beauchamp was only present for one hour of the 40-hour negotiation.

“Protest groups say a negotiated settlement was never in the cards,” the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reported. And more than one pundit writing in the wake of Wednesday’s volatile protests sparked when negotiations broke down – which Canadian broadcast outlet CTV said is one of about 160 since the strike began – seems to agree that the government and Beauchamp may not be negotiating in good faith.

“She calls for calm, but in the same breath, she stirs up anger, ” wrote columnist Marie-Andrée Chouinard.

“I am watching, furious, a government that’s succeeding in a big way: letting a situation rot while hoping to reap the benefits,” said Patrick Lagacé, writing in French. “One must be blind not to see that the Charest government will use this support as a lever in the next election … A lever to pose as defender of order.”

Exactly how might an incumbent government benefit from willful decay? For one, Canadian media have not overlooked that Quebec Premier Jean Charest rarely misses an opportunity to point out that opposition leader Pauline Marois of Parti Quebecoi (PQ) has taken to wearing the red cloth square that is the symbol of the student strike. (PQ does not, however, support the universal free university education some strikers advocate.) The next election must be held sometime between this spring and late 2013, but some have speculated that Charest may try to push for the earlier contest.

According to Canadian media reports after Wednesday’s protests, it does appear that much of the public, at least in Montreal, is tired of the unrest. But many have reacted with alarm at the aggressive police tactics deployed during street protests. And the steady pace of the public demonstrations in Montreal has changed that city.

“Simple things like being able to get from point A to point B in the city these days, it’s not something you can take for granted,” news editor Dominique Jarry-Shore told a Canadian television news program.

As the conflict drags on, the students remain focused on their demand to stop tuition hikes. When Beauchamp announced on Thursday April 26 that additional funds would be made available for student loans and be accompanied by an income-based repayment program, students immediately rejected the plan.

A history student’s article in the April issue of Ultimatum lays out his position on the matter. “ICLR [income contingent loan repayment] is nothing less than the creation of an investment market in training, where banks speculate on certain students which they grant loans to, with the hope of having made a profitable investment,” wrote Martin Robert.

“[E]ven if certain loans aren’t paid back, banks benefit from this type of system anyways,” Robert continued. “In fact, ICLR allows for an overall increase in the number of people contracting loans as well as an overall increase in the amount of money being loaned out at any given time. Banks suddenly have access to a mass of capital … on which they can speculate.”

Robert’s concerns about turning students into investments are echoed in a statement signed by over 1,600 professors in support of the striking students: “To what degree are we prepared to sacrifice courses considered unprofitable?” The question falls in line with the alarm being raised by humanities professors in the US and elsewhere.

The projected revenue from the hikes weighs in at $250 million. Meanwhile, the professors see a different path to securing the university system in economic hard times: “[W]e should be talking instead about ‘malfunding,’ considering the huge transfer of funds once devoted to education and basic research to investments in real estate, private research, advertising and the financing of a powerful bureaucracy.”

Despite the political overtones of the impasse, another of the professors’ comments suggests they see the hikes as part of a larger corporatist agenda of privatization which transcends government, rendering public opinion less than relevant. “We note today that the conservative revolution being implemented by the Liberal government is not the product of any debate and is presented to us as an inevitability,” they said.

Striking students say everyone stands to lose access to education if the hikes are not stopped, and a campaign by students at Quebec’s McGill University, called Tuition Truth, maintains that women, people of color and the poor will be disproportionately affected by rising costs. The Simone de Beauvoir Institute, part of the women’s studies program at Quebec’s Concordia University, has supported the strike, and recently pointed to a study that indicates after the fee increase, single mothers would have to set aside 8 percent more of their earnings than two-parent families to pay for one child’s undergraduate degree.

Meanwhile, according to another April Ultimatum article, international student Mahmood Salehi used his life savings to come from Iran to study in Canada. His acceptance letter put his tuition at just under $14,000, but four months later, he was charged nearly $20,000.

“Despite its claim to multiculturalism, Quebec is becoming an increasingly hostile environment for international students,” said the article bylined Free Education Montreal.

The stakes are high for students, who stand to lose a semester’s worth of university credit if their strike, the longest in Quebec history, continues much longer. Summer classes at at least one university have already been canceled.

The situation remains quick to change. Canadian independent news site OpenFile Montreal is keeping a timeline to stay on top of new developments.

Barring an unexpected breakthrough, as the CBC reported Thursday, “The very idea of a negotiated settlement remains moot for now.”