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Frais de scolarité, grèves étudiantes et leçons de politique appliquée

Dans ma chronique de ce mois-ci dans le Toronto Star (édition du 26 avril), j'offre quelques éléments d'explication aux lecteurs hors-Québec qui observent le conflit étudiant chez nous avec ce qui doit être un brin de perplexité. Les frais de scolarité postsecondaires québécois sont les plus bas du Canada. Quel est le problème? Ce petit texte est loin d'être complet, mais c'est aussi loin d'être le dernier mot sur cette question.

Pour lire le texte original, voir le site du Toronto Star

Tuition hikes, student strikes and lessons in applied politics

Today was supposed to be final exam day in my American politics class, but no one will take the test. Instead, we have a full month of classes ahead of us, if a solution ever emerges from secret talks now being held in Quebec City.

Since I have some time on my hands, let’s try to figure out what’s going on. Is there any way out of this mess? Will there be any winners in this game, whether at the polls or in classrooms?

First, however, I have to address the obvious question that readers outside Quebec might ask: Why all the fuss? Quebec’s university tuitions are the lowest in Canada and CEGEPs are virtually tuition-free, so what are people fretting about?

In fact, at the risk of reinforcing the perceptions of mutual indifference that Michael Ignatieff maladroitly brought to the surface recently, Quebecers in general do not pay much attention to what other provinces do, particularly in education. University administrators and policy-makers might like to compare themselves to the rest of Canada but for the vast majority of Quebec students, the Quebec system is as distinct as the society it serves.

Since my own student days, when tuitions were around $500 a year, activists have been clamouring for one of the unrealized promises of the 1960s’ Quiet Revolution: higher education should be seen as a collective good for society as a whole rather than a personal investment made by individuals in search of future income gains, and therefore reformists at the time determined that the new CEGEP system should be tuition-free, and advocated that universities should also one day be tuition-free.

Starting in the late 1980s, however, Liberal governments have instated successive increases in university tuition, up to about $2,400 now. The latest series of increases under Jean Charest’s watch were grudgingly swallowed by students, but the projected $1,625 hike, albeit over five years, was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Is higher education a public good or a private investment? Of course, in Quebec as elsewhere, it is a mix of the two, but the recent moves by the Charest government tipped the balance toward the latter approach in an unprecedented way, thus clashing with the well-entrenched views of large segments of the population.

This is not the only way in which Quebec’s culture of higher education differs from that of other Canadians. Over the years, the low costs of higher education have made it possible for young adults to pay their own way through university without necessarily relying on their parents’ financial assistance. This expectation of self-reliance is part of what makes Quebec’s culture of higher education distinct, and it is important to take it into account to understand the reaction of many students to the projected tuition hike.

All this being said, however, the student movement is far from united, and many student associations in areas that tend to favour a more “instrumental” view of higher education, such as economics, business or some of the professional schools, have resisted the calls for strike.

Also, the unfortunate association of radical elements prone to violence and vandalism has tarnished the movement in many of its public demonstrations, leading to a gradual erosion of support for their cause, both in the public and inside student bodies.

For example, of my department’s five student associations, one opposes the strike (the politics and economics double majors, unsurprisingly) but others hold on while condemning acts of violence or vandalism (some within our own walls). Whether support for the strike will last as the prospect of losing a semester looms closer is anyone’s guess.

Negotiations are underway to settle the issue for the time being and salvage the semester of thousands of students, mine included. But whatever is bargained for in a closed room shouldn’t be more than a temporary solution. Many students will lose the benefits of a full semester, but they might gain some experience in applied politics.

In the long run, the level of tuitions is a choice that voters should settle, but the atmosphere generated by the strike is unlikely to make decisions any easier for Quebec voters.

If anything, recent polls suggest that this season of student discontent has muddied the waters enough to make Jean Charest’s decision whether to call an election in the spring or in the fall even more of a gamble than it already was.

Pierre Martin is a professor of political science at the Université de Montréal.


Je terminais une récente lettre ouverte http://investisseurautonome.info/content/view/961/242/ au Bâtonnier du Barreau du Québec avec la crainte que des personnes mal-informées invoqueraient sans discernement les prises de positions du Barreau. En voici un exemple, par Laurence Bherer et Pascale Dufour , qui se décrivent comme professeurs en sciences politiques de l’université de Montréal. Ils déclarent, dans une lettre au New York Times (voir http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/24/opinion/our-not-so-friendly-northern-neighbor.html?_r=2 ) , que One of its provinces has gone rogue, trampling basic democratic rights et, pourquoi pas, que Americans traveling to Quebec this summer should know they are entering a province that rides roughshod over its citizens’ fundamental freedoms. Il semble maintenant que l’incapacité de faire preuve de discernement, ou de faire une recherche élémentaire des faits avant de lancer des affirmations graves, soit en train de se propager aux professeurs d’université. A moins que cette lettre soit représentative d’un manque de rigueur généralisé à l’intérieure de cet département, auquel cas je conseillerais les mêmes lecteurs de l’article que American students considering studying in the department of Political Science at University of Montreal in Quebec this summer should know they are entering an area where critical thought has been suspended and group-thought runs rampant.

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