Education International
Education International

Canada: Student strike in Quebec over access to education

published 5 April 2012 updated 11 April 2012

Four EI affiliates, the Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ), the Fédération nationale des enseignantes et enseignants du Québec (FNEEQ-CSN), the Fédération québecoise des professeures et professeurs d’université (FQPPU), and the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) have lent their support to the strike by students in Quebec against a planned increase in tuition fees announced in mid-February.

This is a fundamental social struggle about the right to education, according to the unions.

The protest began following the government’s decision to increase tuition fees by 75% over the next five years. Fees will rise from C$2,168 (€1,661) in 2012 to C$3,793 (€2,900) in 2017.

Arguing that tuition fees in Quebec are well below those charged by universities in other Canadian provinces and that the province needs to curb public spending, the Government of Quebec is instead passing the costs of funding higher education onto  students and their families.

Negative impact

Critics say the steep increase in fees will result in higher levels of student debt and thousands of young people will have to abandon their studies due to lack of money. The principle of access to higher education for all who are qualified, regardless of socio-economic background, is at stake.

The fight back against the government’s plans culminated in a demonstration of historic proportions through the streets of Montreal on 22 March. Over 200,000 people called for the government’s decision to be withdrawn.

Students have walked out of classes, occupied Quebec government offices and blockaded bridges. They have also held news conferences, open air shows, and other public events.

Broad support

“After more than 50 days of non-attendance at lectures, the student movement now has broad support from the trade union movement, the artistic community and a large proportion of the population, and is still going strong,” said François Beauregard, CSQ Communications Advisor. “Strike votes are being renewed in university faculties, colleges of education and vocational colleges, with a comfortable majority still in favour.

“In addition to the financial issues concerning student debt and the sources of university income, the movement has triggered wide social debate about access to education, regardless of social origin. While some wanted to make it a purely economic matter, the students’ associations have succeeded in turning it into a political issue.”

CSQ video about the students' strike of 22 March:

FNEEQ-CSN unreservedly supports the student movement’s fight against the rise in tuition fees. FNEEQ-CSN is the most representative higher education trade union organisation. “This is a social and highly political fight,” said Jean Trudelle, President of the FNEEQ-CSN.

Call on government

The FNEEQ has asked the government to abandon this measure and to set up a consultation process on the future of universities, arguing that the role of universities in modern societies needs to be looked at collectively and comprehensively.

Trudelle also deplored the increasing recourse to legal measures to force students back to the classroom. “It is worrying to see a trend towards this being tackled on an individual basis to the detriment of decisions being taken collectively by a majority. The solution does not lie in legal wrangling.  Administrators are now floating the idea of cancelling this session, while the government continues to turn a deaf ear.”

Education is a right

The Canadian Association of University Teachers has also lent its voice to support the students in defending accessible and affordable higher education.

“Quebec universities require more funding, but shifting the burden to students and their families is counterproductive,” said CAUT president Wayne Peters. “A high tuition policy makes higher education less accessible to students with modest means. Access should be decided by ability and interest, not family wealth or willingness to undertaken substantial debt.”

Max Roy, president of the FQPPU echoed these concerns.

“Considering that access to university is a right for all individuals who have the ability to pursue higher learning and that education is increasingly essential in today’s society, FQPPU reaffirms its opposition to rising tuition,” said Roy. “We reject the government’s claims that raising tuition fees is the only way to ensure adequate funding.”

EI support

EI supports its affiliates and the students of Quebec. It calls on the government of Quebec and university leaders to engage in negotiations with the representatives of the lecturers’ and students’ unions, and to take the necessary measures as quickly as possible to guarantee students equal access to quality higher education.