Quebec Students are Revolting

May 25, 2012
By Christopher Sands
University students in Quebec have been engaged in increasingly violent protests in Montreal and Quebec City over the provincial government’s plan to increase tuition to try to close a significant budget gap. Similar protests have occurred over similar proposals in recent years, but this year the violence and disruption have reached new and alarming levels.
Quebec universities charge the lowest tuition rates in Canada. In-province tuition is just $1,968 per year in Canadian dollars, and the provincial government has proposed an increase to $3,793 by 2016.  All tertiary educational institutions in the province are government funded, and so the provincial government determines tuition for all of them.
Low tuition seems like a boon to youth when viewed from the United States, where students are graduating with record amounts of personal debt from high tuition rates and school fees – only to enter a weak job market. Yet Quebec’s low tuition also encourages the “perpetual student” whose desultory approach to classes (often part-time) and never-completed thesis prolongs their university experience, costing the province more per graduate. 
Yet low tuition and provincial budget deficits limit the funds available to Quebec universities to attract, retain, and support top faculty and world-class research facilities. At the same time, many of the students at Quebec’s universities are unilingual French-speakers without the ability to study at a predominantly English university. That, along with the higher cost, limits their ability to switch to university elsewhere in Canada. Top students who can compete for scholarships frequently opt to study abroad in the United States or Europe, further weakening the educational system in the province and fueling brain-drain from the future workforce.
Many Quebec residents are as frustrated with the provincial government’s handling of the protests as with the protesters. After weeks of confused responses to the growing student protest, Quebec education minister Line Beauchamp resigned. On May 10, students smoke-bombed a Montreal subway station, forcing an evacuation and shut-down of the entire system. 
The provincial government responded with draconian legislation that limited the right to protest and threatened severe fines for organizations associated with violence.  Predictably, clashes with police escalated, with more than 500 students arrested on May 24: to date, more than 2500 students have been arrested due to protest-related activity. 
Some commentators have begun to view the situation as a threat not to education or youth, but to the rule of law in Quebec itself. As protests have escalated, they have become the issue – rather than tuition rates. With the onset of warm summer weather, the forecast is for more marches and outdoor protest activities that could discourage tourism – costing the economy millions of dollars in lost revenue if visitors stay away from the Grand Prix de Montreal, Just For Laughs comedy festival, and the world-famous Montreal Jazz Festival.
Ultimately, the protests are a colorful distraction from the problem at hand: a provincial higher education system on a financially unsustainable course, and a generation of students with limited educational opportunities due to resource-starved universities in Quebec and personal and economic constraints for many who might choose to study elsewhere. After the protests subside, Quebec must address the tertiary education crisis to remain competitive in the knowledge economy.
Christopher Sands is a senior associate with the CSIS Americas Program and a senior fellow with the Washington-based Hudson Institute.