STUDENT STRIKES

STUDENT STRIKES: DON’T YOU THINK THAT THE SYSTEM NEEDS TO BE SUSTAINABLE?

I looked at the Radio Canada home page on my web browser this morning and saw the latest headlines about the student strikes to protest tuition hikes. It said that over 123 000 students are scheduled to be on strike soon, as the walkout gains momentum across Québec. I couldn’t help noticing the very 1960s and 70s-type of ‘campus radicalism’, sort of spin they were putting on the whole thing, as if the students were protesting against some grave capitalist-driven war overseas or some egregious breach of labour relations in the factories to stand up for the masses of sweaty downtrodden proletarian labourers who’re being mistreated by their slave capitalist running dog neo-feudal overlords.

I couldn’t help but say to myself: ‘Give me a break!!!’ First of all, college and university education in Canada is amongst the most accessible anywhere in the world, with the cost being subsidized at roughly 80% by the taxpayer in most Canadian jurisdictions, and in the case of Québec’s now famous CEGEPs (community colleges), they are virtually entirely tuition-free. Furthermore, if you can prove that you are an Aboriginal Canadian, your post-secondary education is 100% paid for by the government, assuming you’ve been able to finish high school without dropping out, committing suicide, getting pregnant, or overdosing on something.

Getting back to Québec, our universities, which, like those in the rest of Canada, are virtually all secular, publically-funded and governed institutions with unionized staff and faculty, (unlike before the mid to late 1960s, when most were Church-run operations devoted to producing clergy and good Christian ladies and gentlemen, with a few full-service universities like McGill, Queens U of T and U of M providing such things as MBAs and engineering, among others), and still have the lowest tuition of all universities in all of Canada.

What the Charest government is asking the students to do is to contribute an annual increase of 325$ for five consecutive years. This would increase fees from the current 2200$ to 3800$ after five years. Still a bargain compared to some other parts of Canada, and a far cry from the 20 000$ per year it takes to go to a place like Harvard in America.

What irks me the most is that the students and the public media are not spinning this in a responsible way. They’re portraying the provincial government as being a big bad instrument of neo-conservative stakeholders who are trying to chip away at our cherished ironclad rights to universal social program entitlements. This form of spin is simply irresponsible. I’m sure there are private-sector stakeholders who do want to re-shape Québec society, but they do have a point when they and others point out that if we want a quality publically-funded post-secondary education system, then we darn well need to be willing to pay for it ourselves.

Faculty and staff don’t live on fresh air and God’s Divine Providence. New buildings don’t get erected in the same way. These student’s parents and grandparents went to university in the 1960s and 70s precisely by having taxes and fees raised on the general population back in 1965-68. You should have seen and heard the uproar from all and sundry when taxes were raised to pay for the edification of the current post-secondary education and health-care system! You would’ve thought that Karl Marx himself had been re-incarnated and had been foisted upon the poor god-fearing souls of this country to dispossess them of their hard-earned worldly wherewithal.

Now the tables are turned. The inheritors of the people who benefitted from that system of social engineering are now being asked in their turn to cough up their fair share to help guarantee the survival and perpetuation of the system, for which previous generations made sacrifices to erect, and they’re bucking at it, just like their ancestors did. Like the old expression goes, ‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!’

One only has to look at the parking lots of any college campus of any CEGEP of Québec city or of Laval University for that matter, and see just how many students have a car to go to school. When I was at CEGEP and university, I always took the bus. And furthermore, by the time I went back to university in 1993 as a mature student at age 29, the Jean Chrétien federal government with Paul Martin as Finance minister had begun the very painful task of cutting funding for post-secondary education and health care and transferring some of that to the provinces.

So in my freshman year and each subsequent year, I saw my tuition go up, my government bursaries cut, and my government loans increased. So my debt-load skyrocketed, and I graduated with 27 000$ of debt, which I eventually paid off, but not without making some pretty big sacrifices to my work-life balance.

This stimulated me to also go looking elsewhere during this period for private financing for my studies. While everybody was lining up outside the government aid office on campus, I saw a door right beside it which said something to the effect of ‘private financial aid’, with no line up. So I went in there and found two big binders full of bursaries from all sorts of private philanthropic organizations that I could apply for.

Was I of Ukrainian, or Chinese descent? No. was I the son or daughter of a retired employee of Stelco Steel or CN rail? No. Was I the child of a former soldier in the Canadian Armed Forces? No. But I persisted, and eventually every year found at least 500$ to 2000$ worth of additional bursary money from philanthropic organizations willing to give me their money, if I supplied them with a detailed budget of my needs, a transcript showing that I had an excellent average, reference letters, maybe write an essay, provide a photo, fill out a form, generally jump through a lot of hoops.

Which I did, and it paid off. I wonder, though, how many students in Québec are going to be willing to do the same, now that the cost of an education will likely be going up? Will they learn to be more responsible and take ownership of their future or will they just fall back on the old Social-Democratic panacea of letting the welfare state look after them from cradle to grave and not have to pay much of anything for it?

I know for me I got several bursaries from several Québec-based private philanthropic organizations when I was at university, most of which were from French-speaking organizations. So it’s not as if Francophone Québecers are poor like in the past. The era of statism of the 1960s and 70s allowed a new cohort of wealth-creators to emerge and become prosperous as a result and they can now give back to this generation through private bursaries to help them with the increase in tuition.

So before we all get carried away by any thoughts of any sort of ‘Kent-State’-type of campus radicalism, let’s look at the facts and put a more realistic spin on things. Maybe those students should ‘strike’ a compromise and stick their noses back into their books instead of hanging on to outdated leftist dogma, which will only ultimately fail to ‘strike’ the imagination of an increasingly cynical populace.

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