Guy Rocher: The Student Movement’s Cause is Just

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Lisa-Marie Gervais, Le Devoir

One of Québec's education system founders advocates abolishing tuition fees

Sociologist Guy Rocher is taking sides: he’s been in the streets with the students since the start of the strike mobilization. And he believes in demanding more than a tuition freeze, in organizing for free education, a struggle he believes is “just,” he told Le Devoir in an interview. “Free education is something we should be working towards,” said Mr. Rocher. “If we start out with this basic principle, we’ll be forced to re-think our policies completely. As long as we stay on the subject of freezes and hikes, we’ll be limited to discussing the numbers.”

In a letter co-signed by Yvan Perrier, a Political Science teacher at the CÉGEP du Vieux-Montréal, Mr. Rocher asserts that tuition hikes are “regressive” measures. “Only students from well-off families can afford these hikes. For others, it will be difficult to cover the higher rates they will be forced to pay,” reads the letter.

The abolition of tuition fees was a position adopted by the Parent Commission in 1965. The commission, of which Mr. Rocher was a member, also made recommendations that led to the creation of CEGEPs and the Ministry of Education. For practical reasons, considering the expenses of the government completely remaking the educational structure, money was not put towards eliminating tuition. “But we expected that in the more or less long-term, the process of eliminating tuition fees would be undertaken. Instead, the government gradually shifted to a neo-liberal view of citizens as paying consumers,” deplored the Université de Montréal professor and researcher at the school’s Centre de recherche en droit public.


Not utopian

In response to his detractors, Rocher insists that free education is not a utopian concept. On the contrary, providing free education for 2011-2012 would have only cost $750 million, a mere 1% of the Québec government’s budget, according to numbers from the Minister of Finance. The professor is calling for closer examination of Québec’s government policy. “There are several areas funds could be diverted from. And it’s all taxpayer money. When I see the amounts being invested in the Plan Nord, without any real guarantee of return, I get the impression we are giving huge handouts to corporations. How can we give this kind of money to companies that are going to exploit our natural resources yet refuse to invest in students to ensure their academic futures? These are political choices.”

But is free education possible in the age of globalization? “It is true that we’re living in a world where there is international competition, but there are other countries that are dealing with this same reality who have adopted very different policies,” insists Rocher, referring to Scandinavian countries, where free education is a common policy. “It’s as though Finland had read the Parent report and applied its recommendations!”

In the 1960s, the principle of free education was meant to make higher education more accessible and more democratic. Nearly 50 years later, this still rings true, according to Mr. Rocher. “ Queébec doesn’t have the highest standing in terms of university attendance,” he said. “When I look at the numbers, which are rising, what worries me is that we’re being told that by 2017, tuition fees will be back to what they were in 1968. How can we say we’re progressing if we’re going back to how things were in 1968? Not to mention it’s dangerous to make calculations using constant dollars. It’s a big step in the wrong direction,” said this ardent believer in the welfare state.


A blind government

Rocher believes that rather than staying stuck at an impasse, the government should have held a larger debate on university financing to reassert their importance. “That’s what’s needed. There is a complete lack of dialogue with a large part of the province’s population: students. Through its attitude, the Quebec government is creating an unhealthy environment and they’re going to end up hurting nobody but themselves.”

The professor is surprised at the lack of judgment he feels the ministers and their counselors have shown on the issue of tuition hikes. “I fear that the government has underestimated how big this movement really is. The big 200,000 person March 22nd demonstration alone should have opened their eyes,” he noted.

The offer to reinforce the student loans program made by the government last week is nothing but a deflection tactic. “The government isn’t naïve enough to think that after 52 days on strike, this offer was going to be well-received by students. […] This government is either very short-sighted or they think they can break the movement. It’s probably another mistake on their part. That’s how I see this impasse,” he explained.

Despite making similar demands, this “student spring” is not like past strikes in “its length and the constancy of its pressure tactics,” said Guy Rocher. “I am very impressed to see that there are so many people in the student movement today that share the same vision, opposition, and resistance to these policies. It’s a new phenomenon,” he concluded. “It shows a real change of attitudes among a portion of the youth. They’re now seeing this hike as being about more than just tuition and are instead also seeing the related social policies and need for change in our society.” A society which, according to Rocher, should get behind this “just cause,” a struggle that isn’t just about “fair shares.”