Gordon Campbell on the remarkable successes of the student strikers in Quebec

If anyone is still wondering what happened to the energies and the organising principles that drove the Occupy movement – or if they’re merely wanting to be re-assured that neo-liberalism can be successfully resisted – they should be looking at the current student movements in Chile, and in Quebec. In both places, students have successfully rallied the entire society around the ideal that free education is a right, not a privilege – and that universities are more than (a) mere assembly lines for turning out corporate drones or (b) research centres whose only real purpose is to maximise business profits. In Chile by contrast, student activists have focused on how foreign companies are taking the lion’s share of economic gains from the country’s mining resources and have turned that situation into a potent rallying cry: “If copper was Chilean, education would be free.”

Free education has been the cornerstone demand of the student movement in Quebec as well. What triggered this year’s strikes was a government plan (first unveiled in 2010) to phase in tuition fee rises over a period of five years, later extended to seven years. (The long lead time on the tuition fee hikes enabled the students to mobilise against them.) Last night in Wellington, Guillaume Legault, the former administrative leader of the foremost Quebec student coalition group Classe, told a public meeting in detail about the years of hard work and patient, disciplined organization that launched abd sustained the strike action, and eventually delivered as many as 300,000 people from all sectors of society on the streets. An interview with Legault can be found here. Just this week, the student strikes have finally triggered an election in Quebec, due to be held in September.

None of this happened overnight. As Legault pointed out, this year’s strike was the ninth since 2005, and the students learned the hard way from past mistakes, and from previous attempts by the government and corporate media to divide and discredit them. The clarity of the students’ demands – free education for all, including as Legault pointed out, for international students as well – was one explanation for this year’s success. Another factor was the commitment to decentralized grassroots decision making and the acceptance of diversity among the tactics deployed within the general movement. A commitment had been gained during preparatory meetings for instance, that there would be no criticism of those among their ranks who were advocating different methods of opposition, and there was agreement that no negotiations with the authorities would be entered into by any factions without the endorsement of the broader movement. The absolute political independence of the student movement from any and all political parties has also been critical to their success. The students were adamant, Legault explained in Wellington, that they would not operate as the youth wing of the Quebec equivalent of the Labour Party.

This internal discipline was matched by a good deal of external public disquiet with the neo-liberal onslaught among ordinary Quebecois. Tuition fees became merely the spearhead of opposition to neo-liberal inroads elsewhere in society:

Most students and their families oppose the many similar measures introduced by federal and provincial governments in Canada in recent years, which collectively represent an unprecedented neo-liberal attack on social welfare (new user fees for healthcare, elimination of public sector services and jobs, factory closures, wanton exploitation of natural resources, an increase in the retirement age, restrictions on trade unions and so on).

There have been other contributing factors to the successful mobilization in Quebec. The provincial government headed by Jean Charest has been in power for a long time, and is in the throes of corruption scandals. In response to the student strikes, the Charest government also foolishly passed a draconian piece of legislation called Bill 78 that criminalized every form of public protest involving more than 50 people, and that placed jaw dropping arbitrary powers in the hands of Police – whose brutal actions in suppressing the subsequent demonstrations only served to further radicalize the wider society.

To some, the tuition fee hike that triggered the protests may not have seemed all that onerous:

Quebec’s average undergraduate tuition — $2,519 a year — is the lowest in Canada, and the hike — $254 per year over seven years — is tiny by U.S. standards. But many Quebecois compare themselves to European countries, where higher education is mostly free, rather than the U.S.

That’s a crucial point. The readiness for the people of francophone Quebec to identify with Europe stands in interesting contrast with the large Anglo-Saxon populations of Britain, the US and New Zealand. By and large, those countries have been prone to buckle at the knees and accept the commodification of education, health and natural resources. Worldwide, there has been a concerted attack on the traditional view of tertiary education, with a view to producing standardised, inter-changeable institutions and outcomes. In Chile and Quebec, this has been met by a much greater willingness to value (and to fight in the defence of) the social heritage that universities represent, and one which European countries still value highly. Here, neo-liberalism has all but buried the traditional role of the university – which used to exist to conserve and to expand knowledge for the general good, and not merely for the prime benefit of the corporate elite.

In New Zealand, just as much underlying disquiet exists as in Quebec about neo-liberalism, and the income inequality that it generates. Tactically then, Quebec has much to offer. The Classe student movement directly challenged the premises of (a) efficiency and (b) affordability used to justify the intended government policy. In particular, it asked how and why the new tuition fees had been arrived at, and to what purposes the revenues would be put (how many teachers, how many classes, what faculties and departments would benefit etc, etc) It was quickly able to demonstrate that the government figures were entirely arbitrary, and no coherent plan for tertiary education existed.

Secondly (on the affordability front) the students defended the principle of free education by advocating that the same amount could readily be raised by alternative methods, via the imposition of a modest fee on bank transaction charges. In New Zealand, the neo-liberal approach to education is being reflected in (a) the increasing burden being placed on students and their families via user fees, (b) in the priorities evident in the pattern of research funding and (c) in the downgrade and eventual closure of faculties in which business has little interest. Instead of their children getting free education at university, taxpayers are increasingly being asked to support the evolution of universities into the free research and development arms of business.

Can these pressures to commodify education – and health, and welfare etc etc – be resisted? Well, the libertarian right – to the extent their actions to bring about voluntary student unionism were motivated by principle – have served as useful idiots for those seeking to atomise any opposition to knowledge being treated as just another market commodity. The existence of compulsory student unionism would have certainly made it easier to mobilise students against such processes, if student unions had been prepared to put in the same level of work as their peers in Quebec and Chile. Reportedly, the Classe organisers went student union to student union, department to department, faculty to faculty, university to university building their base of support before they went on strike. As the Guardian put it:

[Classe] has provided new ways for students previously represented by more cautious and conventional student associations to align themselves with the more militant Assé, with its tradition of direct action and participatory democracy. Activists spent months preparing the ground for the strike, talking to students one at a time, organising department by department and then faculty by faculty, starting with the more receptive programmes and radiating slowly out to the more sceptical.

At every pertinent level they have created general assemblies, which have invested themselves with the power to deliberate and then make, quickly and collectively, important decisions. Actions are decided by a public show of hands, rather than by an atomising expression of private opinion. The more powerful and effective these assemblies have become, the more active and enthusiastic the level of participation. Delegates from the assemblies then participate in wider congresses and, in the absence of any formal leadership or bureaucracy, the “general will” that has emerged from these congresses is so clear that Classe is now the main organising force in the campaign and able to put firm pressure on the other more compromise-prone student unions.

As a result, Classe now commands wide support, and the libertarian few who have gone to court to pursue their right of access to education now constitute only a tiny, marginalised minority. The Guardian again, in its June report:

A growing number of students now also support the fundamental principle of free universal education, long defended by the more militant student groups (loosely co-ordinated in the remarkable new coalition Classe), and back their calls for the unconditional abolition of tuition fees, to be phased out over several years and compensated by a modest and perfectly feasible bank tax, at a time of record bank profits. This hardline stance….has catapulted Classe from being a relatively unknown organisation with 40,000 members to a sprawling phenomenon that now numbers 100,000 and claims to represent 70% of striking students.. Growing numbers, too, can see how such a demand might help to compensate for the most obvious socio-economic development in Canada over the last 30 years: the dramatic growth in income inequality, reinforced by a whole series of measures that have profited the rich and very rich, at the expense of everyone else.

So yes, meaningful opposition to the neo-liberal assault is possible. True, as Legault said, the movement in Quebec has not yet won the kind of victories that similar protests in Chile have achieved. Yet the attempt by the Charest government to make the student strikes the centrepiece of the current election campaign shows just how widespread the public support for free education can be. It is a powerful idea – and in Quebec at least, its time has now come.