For a post-secondary education junkie like me, my move to Québec couldn’t have been better timed.
I left Ontario in June, amid inane ramblings emanating from the cerebral cortex of Glen Murray. His planned changes to Ontario’s higher education sector were outlined in the leaked document, 3 Cubed, that had been widely panned in the winter of 2012. Not one to give up after a failure, Murray repackaged his scheme and tried to shop it around again in the summer. This rollercoaster ride was giving me ulcers. Imagining Murray actually implementing his changes and further destroying Ontario’s higher education system made me want to throw my computer out of the window of my ninth floor office building and accidentally use such force that it would land on top of a bunch of dinosaur bones at the ROM, across the street. (With a good wind, maybe possible).
Since October, with the elementary and secondary teachers in the crosshairs of Dalton McGuinty, all has been quiet on the post-secondary education front in Ontario.
But not so for here. Québec politics has picked up the slack where Ontario left off.
After last year’s mega doses of awesome, the combination of an election and the acceleration of semesters to catch students up who were on strike had the double effect of slowing down the student movement. Marois repealed Law 12 (Law 78) and replaced the tuition fee hike with an increase tied to inflation. For the students, both policies represented tangible and immediate victories of the work from the previous months.
The PQ is a party that is both populist and neoliberal. It bowed to the students demands not because its a party that fundamentally believes that higher education should not be bought and sold, but because the student movement made it possible for them to get elected. It was therefore impossible to immediately ignore their demands.
Once the new government settled down, though, the PQ implemented five per cent cuts, across the board, to university budgets.
With the victory of the student movement fresh in everyone’s minds, the argument flowed that the cuts were necessary to make up for lost revenue in with the tuition fee increase. While not true, the argument can be made to seem logical, and therefore, convincing. And, with university presidents and many faculty having opposed the student strike, this policy preys on divisions that already exist within the sector and weaken the bargaining position of the sector as a whole.
Higher education in all provinces is underfunded and Québec is no exception. Though nowhere near as underfunded as many university presidents claim, the intentional further underfunding by the PQ is a regressive move. Here lies the break from populism to neoliberalism: get elected, implement regressive cuts.
They didn’t stop there, though. They also cut the lifeblood of university research, FQRNT, by a whopping 30 per cent, after the applications for 2013 had already been submitted. This will fundamentally and abruptly alter research this year: professors will be expected to do just as much with less, fewer graduate students will be hired and competition will become more fierce among a group of people already competing for scare resources.
This, all while they host a summit on education to consult on the future of higher education in Québec. Similar to the Dog-and-Pony-Show of Bob Rae in Ontario in 2005, the PQ has let it be known that they prefer the current policy of tuition fees tied to inflation before the summit has finished its work.
So on the higher education continuum, so far, we have the Liberals trying to emulate the worst of Ontario’s policies and gut the best of Québec’s, which delivered them a shitkicking at the polls. Slightly to the left of them is the PQ who has basically tricked the electorate into believing they’re the “progressive” choice of the lot.
With Québec solidaire the only party with the clearest and most progressive policy out there (free education at all stages of life), they occupy the left.
This leaves the CAQ who, of course, devises a plan that is even more schemey than had been proposed by the Liberals. They argue at the summit that Québec should create two tiers of universities: one elite and one common.
The elite schools will be able to set their tuition fees at any rate and grants and loans will fill in the gaps to ensure that McGill doesn’t become overrun with rich Americans and Ontarians.
Of course, the only way that the state could actually do this is to significantly reduce the public funding offered to these schools. In Ontario, this idea floats around the tables of the Council of Ontario Universities too. Led by U of T president David Naylor, he argues for the creation of a funding model that would all U of T (and a few other schools) to deregulate their tuition fees, charge what the market can bear and become truly prestigious.
Unsurprisingly, the presidents of the the Brocks and Nipissings of the world tend to oppose these recommendations.
While Ontario is much closer to Québec in fulfilling this reality, both provinces would substantially damage their systems if they created a two-tiered system. (It’s unclear if the CAQ is ideologically in favour of creating such an elite system, or if they showed up late on the day that right-wing policies were being handed out and they were given a shitty one.)
Either way, I suspect that the CAQ’s dream of an elite Université Laval is about as likely as their likelihood of forming a majority government.
This is good news, but it doesn’t mean that the CAQ should be ignored.
In a minority government situation, there is a high possibility for the proposal of strange, regressive policies to be developed, voted on and passed.
This is why the students’ and faculty responses will be so important.