December 30, 2013
The awakening student movement
Rebel Youth Magazine
(This article appeared in the Winter 2013-2014 print edition of Rebel Youth together with this commentary.).
Students everywhere in Canada have had it with high tuition fees and are working to build a united student fightback to make education a right, not a privilege.
In many other industrialized capitalist countries such as France, Denmark and Spain post-secondary education is largely free. Poorer nations, such as socialist Cuba, provide access to education as a guaranteed right. In Canada students must pay a great deal of money to get the education they need to pursue their dreams or just get a job that’s above the poverty line.
Corporations, of course, want an educated workforce but they are not willing to pay for it through taxes -- and are instead forcing the students and their families to pick up the bill. This «debt sentence» is made heavier by the low wages most youth earn; and doubly hard for aboriginal students, young women, and racialized youth who face additional barriers.
Most students, and a large section of the Canadian people, oppose this full-scale attack on access to education. The challenge for the student movement across Canada is to turn this sentiment into action and mass public pressure. Quebec, which last year saw massive, militant and united student actions that shocked the country, shows the way!
Neo-liberal policies, spurred by finance capital’s desperate hunger for ever greater profits through lower taxes and privatization, have seen federal and provincial governments in Canada massively reduce spending on post-secondary education from forty years ago, when tuition was tiny or even free.
Today, post-secondary education in Canada is very expensive; the average student pays around $6,500, and some in provinces like Ontario and British Columbia pay more than $7,000. The amount is much greater for graduate degrees.
Many students are heavily in debt (more than 14 billion dollars worth of student debt) and many others are not even able to go to university or college; making post-secondary education inaccessible for these students and worsening an already systemically unequal distribution of wealth and power.
CAMPUS FOR SALE?
The corporatization of university campuses is a particularly alarming phenomenon that students have had to struggle under. As a result of lower government grants for post-secondary education, universities have had to rely increasingly on private money.
Tuition fees are a big part of that, but also big money coming from wealthy donors and corporations. These wealthy donors, in ideological partnership with university boards of governors and pro-capitalist provincial governments, are trying to change the very nature of post-secondary education in Canada.
Large corporations buy for-profit research with “donations.” They also use post-secondary education as a public relations advertisement to show how socially or environmentally responsible they are; while simultaneously eroding the rights of students at home and committing terrible abuses abroad.
These class forces want to subjugate universities to corporate interests and curb or even eliminate the traditional academic role of encouraging critical thinking and teaching theories that challenge the system, like Marxism for example. In order to do this, universities are increasingly centralizing their powers, attacking academic freedom, labour unions, progressive student groups, as well as funding or otherwise supporting right wing youth to take over student unions; dividing, wrecking and neutralizing the student movement.
The situation facing Canadian students is challenging to say the least. Positively, in recent years students across the country are getting up and standing up for their right not only to reduced fees but to free education.
Nowhere is this struggle more remarkable and intensified then in Quebec. For many years, Quebec students enjoyed lower fees than other provinces due to having a more militant and organized student movement, including a long-standing freeze in fees.
However in 2010, the pro-capitalist Quebec Liberal government of Jean Charest announced that tuition fees would soon rise. Students in Quebec were outraged and demanded action. A major debate developed about strategy out of which the students, learning from mistakes in 2005 and 2007, realized that the essential ingredients for a fight-back were unity and militancy.
When Charest announced in 2011 that tuition would rise by a stunning 82% by 2018, students were beginning plans for a strike vote, with an agreement for common action between three main student union centrals.
The Quebec student strike of 2012 became the largest strike and mass mobilization of students in Canadian history. Some of the rallies were also the largest ever in Canadian history with 150 - 250,000 students in the streets.
There were many memorable and important moments of the strike.
Very quickly the strike became a flashpoint for popular opposition to the Charest government and austerity. From the beginning the students made connections with other struggles, forming the «Red Hand» coalition with labour and community groups, and organizing a massive action with environmentalists on Earth Day.
UNITED WE STAND
In negotiations the student unions stayed united; the government eventually admitted the decision to increase fees basically had little to do with finances but was part of an ideological campaign to destroy social programmes starting with post-secondary education. An all-campus referendum overwhelmingly rejected the government’s proposal at the negotiating table and showed broad support for the struggle, including on non-striking campuses.
After failing to negotiate an end to the strike, Lise Beauchamp in May of 2012 resigned as Minister of Education. This was a sign that the Charest government was weakening and that students were gaining the upper hand.
A few days later, the Charest government passed the now infamous Bill 78 which effectively suspended the freedom of assembly in Quebec and further angered a very broad section of civil society groups.
This lead to even more protests, now all illegal, as well as mass arrests. A growing coalition formed between students, labour, progressive political parties like the coalition Quebec Solidaire, civil liberties groups, lawyers and other progressive alliances.
The red square, worn by hundreds of thousands of striking students and supporters across the country became a symbol of solidarity in opposition of rising student fees. Despite unhelpful silence from the NDP and Liberal opposition, solidarity actions quickly took place across the country.
Later that summer, under growing pressure Jean Charest called an election and was unsurprisingly defeated by the sovereigntist and pro-business Parti Québecois lead by Pauline Marois, running a populist and seemingly anti-austerity campaign.
This was seen as a clear rebuke of Charest’s position during the strike and a victory for the student movement in Quebec. After over eight months of campaigning, students returned to class with a tremendous sense of empowerment and political consciousness, but divided over how positive their achievements were.
Very quickly all of the more progressive demands, like reducing and eliminating tuition fees, were rejected by the PQ who now will continue with an increase, less rapidly than under the Charest plan but, dangerously, on a much longer-term basis.
Nevertheless, what made the student movement successful was their extensive use of general assemblies to engage students directly, giving a sense of democratic control over their movement.
The unity between the different student groups, including the tactic of the most militant union forming a short-term expanded coalition of striking unions (the CLASSE), was crucial. Militant strategies and tactics based on mass mobilization also led to the successful efforts to link their movement to the struggle to bring down the Charest government and its anti-people and anti-environmental agenda.
The election also saw a surge of support for the left-wing coalition Quebec Solidaire, (which includes the Communist Party) it called for free tuition among other things, and elected two members.
The Quebec student strike of 2012 has therefore become a shining light for the rest of the student movement in English Canada. There were other but less intense student struggles across the country for accessible education. In Nova Scotia, for example, the CFS and a few student unions took to the streets in Halifax to demand an end to funding cuts by the NDP government.
Again, the debate about militancy, unity, democracy, and programme is critical. On the one hand, the CFS has tended to avoid mass mobilization towards flashy ad campaigns, lobbying, and waiting for elections to vote NDP. Outside of Ontario and Nova Scotia which have been more progressive in recent years, the CFS has approached bold ideas like free education with some caution, although still calling for it on paper.
This strategy also hasn’t helped stop right-wing attempts to break-up the CFS in favor of either reactionary student unions which call for tuition increases (!) or just political inactivity.
Confusedly, some on the left have sided with these demands to disorganize the student movement based on this or that structural or strategic problem with the CFS.
Many students in English-speaking Canada are demanding a strong movement, more militant student unions and a much more active Canadian Federation of Students, calling for it to «break out of the bunker» and launch a counter offensive.
It remains to be seen exactly how such a movement will come to light; for the YCL it cannot be too soon! What is clear though is that it is absolutely necessary that students across the country organize and mobilize to demand significantly more funding to universities; to link up with labour and community groups to take back governments from the grip of finance capital and start building the kind of accessible post-secondary education system that makes quality, universal, public, accessible, and democratic education a fundamental right!
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