Queen's University

How much tuition is too much?

Queen’s student writers argue the case for and the case against the tuition fee hike protests that disrupted the academic year at Quebec universities and touched off a heated national debate about access to post-secondary education and spiraling student debt levels.

A fine and just cause

By Holly Tousignant, Artsci’12

On May 30, The Globe and Mail website ran its weekly slideshow of celebrity photos. As usual, the photos were accompanied by witty, sarcastic comments from the newspaper’s “Caption Person.”

Holly TousignantHolly Tousignant

This was not your typical celebrity photo slideshow, though. Interspersed with the usual pictures of such movie stars as Nicole Kidman and Johnny Depp were photos of Quebec’s students protesting against tuition increases.

The juxtaposition was striking, and the captions were particularly apt. Beside the first photo of flag-waving protesters marching through Quebec’s streets, the caption read: “You didn’t come here to look at a bunch of self-centred, entitled people who don’t know the value of a dollar and obviously crave attention. I don’t know what I was thinking. You have no time for those kinds of people.”

The irony, of course, is that anyone reading the caption had come to the website to see exactly that: self-centred, entitled, attention-craving people.

The Globe and Mail’s editorial-in-disguise sneakily identified the hypocrisy that seems to surround much of the criticism of the Quebec student movement. One of the movement’s most notable critics, for example, has been millionaire race-car driver Jacques Villeneuve.

Monaco-raised, Villeneuve attended boarding school as a child. According to a Montreal Gazette article I read, he says that unlike the student protesters, he “was raised to believe in hard work, and not imagine money will fall from the sky.”

By slamming the student protesters, Villeneuve joined the ranks of those journalists and thinkers who miss the irony of labelling as “entitled” a group of people who are less privileged than they themselves.

"Entitled” to what, exactly? An affordable education? A life without debilitating debt?

Veteran Toronto Star columnist Rick Salutin has written that the word “entitlements” has replaced the word “rights” in discussions.

“When did health, housing, a dignified retirement, etc., stop being human rights and turn into shabby, whiny entitlements?” he has asked.

Those are exactly the type of “entitlements” today’s young people will lose if their debts continue to grow as they have in recent decades.

But students in Quebec are better off than their counterparts elsewhere in Canada, critics argue.

In terms of debt, they certainly are. According to the Canadian Federation of Students, graduates in Quebec have the lowest student debt in the country at just over $13,000 on average, compared to the national average of almost $27,000.

That makes sense, given that students in Quebec pay the lowest tuition in the country. The recently announced hikes would raise tuition by $1,625 -- 75 per cent -- by 2017, meaning that Quebec students would still be paying less than students in any other Canadian province. In Ontario, students pay more than $6,000 a year on average.
Some would argue that these figures are proof that Quebec students are simply spoiled complainers.

We shouldn’t be asking why Quebec students are protesting; instead, we should be asking why more students in the rest of Canada are not.

I think they’re proof students have been doing something right. Quebec students have the lowest tuition precisely because they complain. The province’s long history of student protests has contributed to keeping tuitions low.

Given the precedent for that success, why wouldn’t students fight for lower tuition and, by extension, lower debts? As mentioned, a $13,000 debt is better than the average student debt in the rest of the country, but it’s still a burdensome weight for any new grad to carry.

We shouldn’t be asking why Quebec students are protesting; instead, we should be asking why more students in the rest of Canada are not.

I don’t agree with the violent measures that a small minority in Quebec (both students and police) have employed, but I also don’t believe the solution to curbing the violence of this minority is infringing on the rights of everyone else.

Support for the movement has increased significantly since the Charest government passed Bill 78, which restricts freedom of assembly on university campuses and prohibits demonstrations that have not been pre-approved by police.

Bill 78 is indicative of one of my biggest concerns about the criticism: that people are using their objections to what the students are fighting for to argue that they shouldn’t have the right to demonstrate at all.

I realize that some people reading these words will think my opinions are naïve or misguided. I’m fine with that. I only hope that those who disagree with what I am saying would still defend my right to say it.

Protests gone wrong

By Savoula Stylianou, Artsci’14

The student protests in Quebec have been a demonstration of citizens fighting for change, but causing more harm than good.

Post-secondary tuition fees in Quebec have been frozen for 33 years, yet in February, when Premier Jean Charest suggested a minimal increase, students were outraged and decided to protest.

Tuition fees have long been a point of dispute in Canada, and nowhere is this truer than in Quebec. Charest’s proposal was that starting this fall, tuition fees would be raised by $325 a year for each of the next five years. Tuition in the province now stands at $2,167, plus the applicable student fees (see boxed text below). With the proposed increase, it would be $3,793 by 2017. That’s still 30 per cent lower than was the 2010 average post-secondary tuition in other Canadian provinces.

Opinion photoSavoula Stylianou, Artsci’14
 

Furthermore, tuition costs in Quebec have consistently been the lowest in Canada, with Newfoundland and Labrador coming in second. Even with the government’s suggested tuition increases, Quebec students will still pay the lowest tuition in the country.

These facts make the protests seem truly unreasonable to me. Any comparison of tuition protests to fights for democratic freedom in places such as Syria and Egypt –- which some protesters have been trying to make –- is hyperbolic at best because the governments in those countries have not attempted to negotiate as Quebec government officials have tried to do.

Those negotiations occurred in late May, and it was obvious that the Charest government was willing to talk with the student protesters. Then-Education Minister Michelle Courchesne put the option on the negotiation table that the new proposed tuition fee be decreased by $35. Student protest leaders turned that proposal down unanimously.

The government also put forward the possibility of spreading any tuition increase over seven years instead of five, in effect dropping the per year increase from $325 to $254. Student leaders also rejected this offer.

The failed negotiations proved that the student groups are content to cause turmoil, but were unwilling to agree to any kind of compromise. As a result, the student protests in Quebec have dragged on for months, and there is no end in sight, as of the time that I write these words.

While the protestors remain adamant that they will not rest until tuition fees are frozen again, the Montreal uprisings continue to stir controversy.

From the beginning of this struggle, Premier Charest said the tuition increase will go only towards helping students in the future. The government’s plan is to have $850 million go towards university education by 2017, with the tuition income making up 31 per cent of that sum.

The government has also promised to increase loans and bursaries for students to help pay for their tuition.

In early June it was reported that during a student protest march in Quebec City, some protesters were giving the Nazi salute. There were also swastikas on anti-police pamphlets being distributed. As a result, the protestors faced anger and criticism from Jewish groups who are offended by the apparent parallel being drawn between the government’s controversial legislative response to the protests in Quebec (Bill 78) and the happenings in Nazi Germany.

The Quebec government is not without blame for the turmoil, and incidents of police over-reaction and even brutality cannot be ignored -- specifically incidents such as one in which a student lost his eye when a percussion bomb was thrown by a police officer.

Perhaps one of the most shocking moments from this whole situation has been the student leaders allowing convicted FLQ terrorist Paul Rose to give a speech at one rally.

Student protesters and their non-student supporters have also been guilty of resorting to violence, smashing store windows, setting cars on fire, and threatening students who chose not to partake in the protests and wanted to continue attending classes to save their academic year.

Perhaps one of the most shocking moments from this whole situation has been the student leaders allowing convicted FLQ terrorist Paul Rose to give a speech at one rally. Rose murdered Quebec labour minister Pierre Laporte in October 1970.

The student protesters feel they are fighting for a good cause, but I argue they are going about it in an immature manner and causing unnecessary problems rather than working towards a solution that would end this conflict in a responsible and reasonable way.

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2012-07-26
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