Our Canadian Spring Uprising

We recently celebrated 100 days of student unrest in Quebec over increases in tuition fees in that province. At first I did not pay much attention. No one takes a price increase lying down, I figured, one has to question it, raise a fuss and hope that the price•increaser backs down. But when this protest got ugly with street demonstrations, destroyed public property, Molotov cocktails, tear gas, mass arrests, draconian legislative changes, the provincial government being pushed to the brink, and more than just students joining in the demonstrations, I started to take notice.

Was this our Canadian equivalent of the Arab Spring? Unlike those other countries whose citizens were fighting for freedom and opportunity, our students were protesting a modest fee hike that would still see their fees among the lowest in Canada. They were fighting for a European entitlement model that has seen many of those states descend into financial turmoil; they were not being grateful that, compared to our southern neighbour, our tuition fees are about a tenth the cost. Was there something more than student fee hikes driving this dissent? Was this another unstructured expression of dissatisfaction like the Occupy movement of a few months ago? Or of those Arab Springs that had swelled so ferociously to topple governments? In a peaceful country like Canada, do we need an Arab Spring? Were our students becoming pawns to other forces?

If the central issue is still tuition hikes (I hope it still is), I’d like to offer some suggestions to both sides—students and educators alike—on how we may get past this sorry state of confrontation and deadlock. These are apolitical ideas, based on common sense and are mine alone:
1. With the technology available today, education delivery costs must come down, not go up. With online courses we do not need to continue with outdated models of classroom attendance, live lectures, and bricks and mortar infrastructure. We might even reduce the number of universities and increase enrollment while reducing costs, with technology•powered delivery. We are doing it everywhere else! I even stumbled on an online PhD.
2. We need to get away from university rankings, credential•ism and pedigree boosting which only create elitism among universities, a ranking of winners and losers. The winners command higher prices based on sizzle rather than steak. Besides it’s tough to graduate from a university with a pile of student debt only to find that due to its poor advertising, one’s alma mater is now ranked among the “also ran’s.”
3. Standardization: I have a hard time understanding why a student when transferring between universities has to jump through hoops to get her credits from the first university recognized at the other and often has to repeat courses at the new university. What happened to education standards, at least at the undergraduate level?
4. Pay for results not for tenure. If a piece of research is produced that is of merit and extends the field in which the professor practices, then pay for the value of the research and not for the professor’s lifestyle. This is also happening everywhere else, so why not in academia?
5. Enrollment should be targeted. “Bum’s in seats” to grab government funding should give way to the “right bum in the right seat.” And please refresh the seats periodically so they fit into the real world and can earn their occupying bums a decent wage.
6. Peaceful demonstrations are one thing, but when public property is damaged, it only increases costs to society. Also, when classes are missed, they have to be made up somewhere. So my advice to the protesting students is, “Kudos to you, you have demonstrated good consumer resistance and made your point. But now it’s time to salvage your credibility, your parents’ money and your student loans, so please get back to class.”

A government subsidized education is a privilege, for both students and educators. Don’t screw it up, guys!

And if this Mess in Montreal is about a more sinister issue other than tuition hikes, that will be the subject of another blog post.

2 thoughts on “Our Canadian Spring Uprising”

  1. Hi Shane,

    On behalf of everyone in Québec, protesters or not, I’d like to thank you for this long awaited effort to salvage both property and dignity in the current turmoil surrounding tuition fees in the province. Your suggestions and comments and sensible and above all, feasible. But as you expressed concern about, there are other underlying issues that began cracking to the surface like plant sprouts over the last spring season.

    Common sense dictates that no one would spend 100+ days protesting for a slight increase in tuition fees alone. We are living fascinating moments here in Québec, watching this generation long accused of apathy hold their ground for a matter of principle more that money. Someone finally picked up the torch our generation had carried seemingly in vain.

    In fact, it is now obvious that tuition fees were only the catalyst that allowed numerous grievances and frustrations to express openly in the street, hammering on pots and pans. Many people in Québec are voicing out loud in many, different words the same message: It’s time for a change. Major change.

    As of today, the essence of the message is rather confuse, though. Some call for free education, others for more social justice, tax reform or downright anarchy. It may take some time before the feeling of dissatisfaction boils down to one or two more chewable, more specific issues.

    Simply by gauging the size of the spontaneous protest movement – families taking to the streets, South American style – it’s easy to tell that the pot has been boiling and pressure has been building up for a long time.

    Will some of that steam produce something valuable and lasting? It’s too early to see, in my opinion, although the simple fact of letting it out is already a positive outcome. Some think that a new generation just woke up; the last time it happened in the province, we called it the Quiet Revolution. This time, it may not be so quiet. Over the years, we’ve seen fires flare up only to wane instantly. Will this one finally billow?

    Gilles Bureau 2012-05-28

  2. Giles, thanks for your comment.
    It would be good for the students, whom we consider among the highest educated in the land, to arrive at those one or two specific issues pretty fast and articulate them well. To blame everything on tuition fees will only do them harm in the long run.
    All the best with your “Not-so quiet revolution”. The rest of Canada is watching and will, I am sure,throw their hats in the ring too if the value proposition is right.

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