Before the Summit: Towards Free Tuition, Cautiously

So here we are. the summit starts tomorrow. the fruit of last spring’s student movement, this gathering of dignitaries and ministers hopes to reconcile very different views of the future of Quebec’s education system, and thusly help the PQ minority government smother one possible spark for a politically costly mass mobilization campaign.

I don’t want to talk too much about the parliamentary politics in play here, mostly because i think it’s a little crass. The summit itself is non-partisan, and will surely provide equal time to all different view points- Kidding!

It seems a foregone conclusion that regardless of the recommendations that come out of this conference, students are most probably going to see their fees indexed to inflation. However, in a tricky rhetorical flourish, Pauline Marois has moved the goalposts: for her, indexing fees to inflation is the same as freezing them. It’s a clever trick- she can implement an indexation, thus asking students to pay more for their education every year (even as their wages are stagnant with unemployment high) while still arguing she froze tuition fees.

Of course, her definition is nonsense, and is contradicted by no less a public figure than Jacques Parizeau. He reminds us that tuition fees were initially (in 1968) set to $567 annually, and were frozen until 1989. The idea was to “allow inflation to reduce the burden on students”, a gradual move towards a free system. “A whole generation thought the same thing. They (today’s student activists) aren’t out of line, aren’t out of the norm.” The fact, then, that Marois is already redefining terms, and taking them out of their historic context, doesn’t bode well. Students can make elegant arguments in favour of a tuition freeze, a position I’m for in the short term, but they will be taken as arguments in favour of indexation.

There is more evidence that the outcome of this summit is a foregone conclusion, and that it will result in a bad decision for partisans of universally-accessible post-secondary education. The summit is going to focus on four major elements of discussion. The third is defined as ‘ensuring the evolution of university financing considering the capacity of Quebeckers to pay. These are muddy rhetorical waters- which Quebeckers? Including university students? excluding financial and resource corporations?

It gets uglier when you go to the tape (pdf). The PQ government reminds us in their section on this discussion topic (p.17) that they’ve planned to increase funding to universities by a third over what was planned by the Liberals through 2018, but then go on to suggest that some of this money should be used to ‘encourage philanthropy’ (wining, dining, and tickets to Cirque du Soleil no doubt) and to encourage ‘better financial and governance practices’. Should the money to make sure our education money is being well-spent be spent from the money we’re spending on education? The question makes me dizzy. We’re not talking here about who can really afford to pay increased tuition fees, and whether it would take a bigger bite out of my personal budget than a 1% capital tax on financial companies would on theirs (it would, proportionally).

This is a small example, but I invite you to read the material and see for yourselves that this summit has every appearance of a smokescreen to cover the politically risky imposition of an increase in tuition fees through indexation, rather than a gradual decrease as envisioned by the founders of Quebec’s public university system. I understand that free tuition, desirable as it is for a modern society trying to compete in a global information economy, is not going to happen tomorrow. Nor should it. I don’t want anyone’s taxes funding disasters like the Ilot Voyageur or Concordia executives’ golden parachutes. Hopefully some tangental good will come from other conversations at the summit, such as stricter oversight of university finances, or more funding for research- the real conversation, however, about our vision for higher education and Quebec’s place in the world, looks not to be for tomorrow either.

So, what is reasonable to hope for, given an intransigent government and a hostile media? I’m personally in favour of maintaining a freeze on tuition while we look at ways to make the system more accessible and of higher quality. An indexation to inflation, however, in an unstable economic climate, is a hardship waiting to happen, especially among the most vulnerable student populations, particularly women and First Nations (pdf). Bloquons la hausse.

It’s a question of vision. I believe in a universally-accessible, world-class university system, producing new research and new art, mostly in French, made in Quebec, and promoting us around the world as the best place in the world for a young person to be. I believe in progressive taxation of major financial and resource companies to get us there. But I’m prepared to be patient. Let’s freeze it today and keep the momentum moving towards tuition zero. But let’s not forget to do our own work in the meantime- improving our schools in the ways we can, building networks across institutional borders, and sharing our work and research. Towards free tuition, cautiously.

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