Student rights and the right to education

Written by Bob Whitney on May 15, 2013

NotforSaleEducation

University students in Fredericton make a statement at the province of New Brunswick’s budget consultation on Feb. 7th that education, the environment and healthcare are not commodities. Photo by David Coon.

Reflections on tactics and strategy after the Québec Maple Spring

“Nothing about us, without us, is for us.” – Slogan of South African students

“If you do not have your own strategy, then you are part of someone else’s strategy.” – Alvin Toffler

The issues of the “right to education” and “student rights” were front and centre in the province of Québec in 2012.  Thousands of students from all levels of the educational system, as well as large segments of the public in general, demanded the right to an accessible, affordable, and quality education. Many students demanded a free university education. [1] There was considerable support, both within Québec and internationally, for these objectives. There were many other people, especially in English Canada, who regarded the demands of Québec students as “unrealistic,” “radical,” and “utopian.” Québec students were frequently accused of having a sense of “entitlement,” meaning that they are spoiled brats who want a free – meaning “easy” – education that will be paid for by hard-working taxpayers. But anyone who has even the vaguest sense of the history of student movements knows that the demands of Québec students are hardly utopian, unrealistic, or new. Indeed, there are several countries where people do have access to a free university education, and while there is always room to debate how well particular models of free education work, the principle – the right—to have access to a quality and free education is not at issue.[2]

The United Nations and other world bodies have declared that the right to education should be a human right. We know, of course, that in reality there are very few places in the world where the right to education  has any practical meaning for the vast majority of people, especially the very poor and women. Article 26 of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights states:

(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.[3]

In a very broad sense, these are the principles that Québec students were (and are) fighting for. Students in Québec, therefore, are not out of touch with reality, they are in the forefront of a world-wide movement to make free and quality education a reality, and a right. There is nothing wrong to feel entitled to a quality and free education. But, are the principles outlined above “rights”? What, indeed, are “rights”? “Who are students?” What do we mean by “student rights”? And, should students struggle for “student rights” and should part of that struggle be to achieve collective agreements that codify and legalise student rights? These questions, and the possible answers we might have to them, are at the heart of any discussion about the future strategies and tactics of the student movement in Québec and elsewhere.

What are “Rights”?

People who are part of student movements (or any social movement) are typically motivated by the desire to attain what they regard to be as their rights. Of course what rights students claim and how they claim them entirely depends on specific historical, political, cultural, and economic contexts. Nor is it always clear to what degree the participants in student movements regard their demands or objectives as “rights” at all. It is one thing to demand that tuition not be raised or that students should have more say over their education; but it is another matter altogether to regard these demands as rights. It is entirely possible for people to achieve certain demands or victories without gaining any more “rights.” Students in Québec have no more rights today than they did when they succeeded in preventing the tuition hikes proposed by the Charest government.

So what do we mean by “rights”? “Rights” are first and foremost collective principles to be claimed by people who want more control over their lives. Rights are not privileges or laws that are granted by those in power to people with less or no power. This distinction and tension between people claiming rights and governments granting rights to people is important and it is at the heart of many political and social struggles, including the student movement. [4]  Non-state actors (people who are not part of the ruling elites and their networks) claim rights because they want more say and control over their lives and communities; states (governments) grant rights in order to supervise, control, and manage people. For state authorities, laws and rights are the same thing, which is one reason so many politicians are lawyers. If we accept this definition of rights as laws, then people should not have “the right” to break the law and it is government officials and lawyers who define what rights people should or should not have. But if rights are defined as collective principles that come from, and are claimed by, non-state actors themselves, then at best laws should be made to strengthen and legitimize those collective principles instead of being used to repress or deny rights deemed as illegitimate in the eyes of the state. The challenge for people fighting for their rights, therefore, is how can they claim, and win, rights without allowing the state to co-opt, manipulate, and re-define “rights” in ways that take the power away from non-state actors and put it in the hands of a small group of politicians and lawyers.

Who are “Students”?

There is no point in talking about “student rights” and “the right to education” if we are not clear about what we mean by “students.” By definition “students” are a socially amorphous group. If class identity is defined by a person’s social relation to the means of production (how a person’s labor power is mobilized and organized within the capitalist division of labor) then “student identity” can be defined as a person’s social relation to the “means of education” – meaning the intuitions that “educate” them. Students’ social relation to the means of education is determined by age, gender, race, class, culture, and nationality, as well as where they live and go to school (large city, small town, poor or wealthy neighborhood, region). Much also depends on what kind of school students attend:  the student experience in a high school, polytechnic, trade school, CEGEP, or university varies considerably and there are countless  reasons why people study in these institutions.

Given this spectrum of possibilities and circumstances, we might legitimately ask if “students” constitute coherent social group at all. Since students are part of society at large, their individual identities are shaped by relations of class, gender, race, and culture and nationality, including language. And students’ access to different kinds of education very much depends on a complex and ever changing combination of all these relations. Students are, quite simply, individuals who study. What can unite individual unite students into a coherent social group; so can the shared ideals and principles about what “rights” they believe they should have as students. In this sense, if students are to have any meaningful collective identity at all, it will be forged on the basis of highly contingent and specific political and economic struggles and circumstances. The vast majority of students worry about high tuition, paying for basic expenditures, and the quality of their education. But having the same worries does not mean people share same identity. What helps form and shape a person’s identity are those moments when she or he struggles for something, believes in something, and is willing to work with others to attain the same objectives.

Do students have rights?

Students, as a group, as an identifiable collectivity within society, have no rights. Individual students certainly have rights as individual citizens, but they have no rights as students. Unlike other sectors of society (wage workers, women, racial, cultural, and religious groups) there is no formal (legal) or generally acknowledged consensus that students have, or should have, collective rights or “protections” under the law. Nor should we confuse laws about education with the right to education. Governments can pass laws that compel people (mostly children) to attend school, but compelling people to go to a school has nothing to do with getting an education, let alone having a “right” to education. The very meaning of “education” is a highly politicised and contentious issue, especially in societies where educational systems are by definition part of the ideological and institutional apparatus of state domination. But the main point for now is that that it is worth remembering that when students struggle for the right to education (free or otherwise), students themselves have no collective rights, either within their institutions or within society at large.

Universities are, never have been, and were never intended to be democratic institutions. Since their founding in the middle-ages, universities were founded to perpetuate the rule and interests of the dominant classes. In more recent times wider segments of the population (in western capitalist countries anyway) have gained access to a university education,  but the over-all purpose of a university education is to make the existing power structures in society work better. The vast majority of people who work in a university (and studying is work!) are students. But, unlike other people who work at university, students do not receive a salary for that work. On the contrary, the majority of students incur heavy debt loads (and work low-paying jobs while studying) in order to pay for their education. Yet students have virtually no say, and certainly no rights, when it comes to issues such as how the university is governed, what academic programmes are available, and how tuition and fees are spent. Students have no meaningful voice or representation on decision making bodies within the university. There might be the occasional student representative on Senate or on university committees, but these representatives are typically observers more than participants. In effect, university governance relegates students to the role of passive tuition and fee-paying individuals who have no right, and should not expect a right, to have any say or control over their education.

The undemocratic nature of university governance begs the question: can students expect to win any rights within an institution that is inherently undemocratic? This question is not new. In the late 1960s organizations such as Students for a Democratic Society in the United States had evolved to the point where many of its members concluded that student politics was a dead end and that reforming or democratizing universities was impossible.[5] With that conclusion in mind, after 1969 former SDSers incorporated themselves into a broad range of radical causes, solidarity movements, and leftist political formations of one kind or another. These “veterans” of the student movement went on to make major contributions to progressive causes throughout the 1970s, 80s, and beyond. Similar debates about the role, purpose, and long-term viability of student movements and organizations have been taking place in recent years throughout the world, including, of course, in Québec.

One of the most common trajectories for student movements, then, is to merge with, or dissolve into, wider struggles for social change outside the educational system. But does this trajectory mean that students should abandon any attempt to win reforms or rights within the university system? A relatively small minority of radicalized students might come to this conclusion, but what about the vast majority of students who are not, and might never become, committed activists? Are student movements “doomed” to repeat the cycle where sooner or later the leading and most experienced activists (an elite?) leave the movement to join other causes, thereby leaving the majority of students (and future students) to fend for themselves and probably repeat many past mistakes? One of the most common tensions within student movements is that between relatively small but articulate and dedicated “leaders” and a large majority of “average” students who care about the issues, but are not ready to assume anything that might look like a leadership role. Without getting into the issue of “elitism” or “cliquism” within student groups, “leaders” are often people who simply lead by example or express ideas clearly, not because they want power or leadership positions. But the problem remains: struggles evolve, one set of specific demands leads to other and more general demands, and what began as fight within the educational system spills over into a struggle to change society.

Collective Agreements for Students: Viable Strategy or Political Trap?

One possible solution to the problem of how to sustain student struggles within educational institutions is to fight for collective agreements between students and administrations. In principle, there should be nothing radical about this idea. After all, many universities have signed collective agreements with both academic faculty and staff unions. These agreements clearly outline certain legally binding rights and obligations of both parties. Such agreements are an acknowledgment that people do have collective rights as employees. Why, in principle, should students not have their own collective agreements that acknowledge their collective rights? After all, students make up the vast majority of people who work at the university and it is their tuition and fees that account for a large percentage of university budgets. And, negotiating collective agreements might open the door for students to go beyond the more immediate concerns about tuition and fees and increase students’ say about larger questions of university governance and finance, academic programming, class sizes, health and safety concerns, and student representation on post-secondary education policy making bodies.

The obvious difference between students and others who work in the university is that students are not employees. Unlike salaried workers, students do not have a contractual relationship with the university administration. Wage workers, or even salaried academic faculty, whether they are organized or not, can, if they so choose, take advantage of a well-established system of labour law and labour rights to defend their interests if they feel threatened. Trade unions (and some academic associations) were founded and exist with the express purpose to claim, fight for, and defend the collective rights of their members. The right to organize is a generally recognized right in our society and one of the main reasons to organize at all is to win a collective agreement that protects an organization’s members. Yet student organizations have not (or are not willing to) follow the lead of other unions and organizations and fight for collective rights and agreements.

There might be a couple of advantages for the student movement to adopt the strategy of fighting for student collective rights and collective agreements. One benefit would be that student groups could organise students not simply to fight against something (tuition increases etc) but to fight for tangible rights and freedoms that will benefit all students, both in the present and future. Future students, in turn, would not have to start old fights over again and they could improve and strengthen the victories of their predecessors. Another advantage would be that student groups could establish stronger and hopefully permanent organizational roots within their institutions. By fighting for and winning collective agreements, the student movement could build a solid political and organizational foundation that would last longer than any particular group of student leaders and, hopefully, provide the opportunity for new leaders to emerge  within strong organizations. Finally, a permanent organizational presence within an institution would make it possible for all students, from their first to last year, to feel part of an active and effective organization during their student life.

But as appealing as fighting for student collective rights and collective agreements might be, there are some very real dangers associated with such a strategy. In the first place, if we think of “collective agreements” in the typical trade union and collective bargaining sense of the term, anyone who has been involved in attaining and negotiating such agreements knows how time consuming, bureaucratic, and legalistic winning such agreements can be. Indeed, if collective agreements are to be legally binding, lawyers must be involved in the process, which costs a great deal of money that student organizations typically do not have.

Politically speaking, negotiating and maintaining collective agreements requires a great deal of oversight that involves a relatively small group of people with specialised knowledge about the strategy and tactics of negotiation. This bureaucratic division between a specialised group of negotiators and the rank and file risks driving a wedge between an elite leadership and a passive membership. Over time, the rank and file either become complacent about what rights they have, or forget (or don’t care) that they are members of a union or collective body. The leadership might be perfectly honest and well-meaning people, but negotiating and overseeing collective agreements can easily sap all their time and energy, which means the overall organizational strength and depth of the student organization is weakened. The best collective agreement in the world is useless if people are not organized enough to defend that agreement when it comes under attack.

A further danger of entering the world of legally binding collective agreements is student organizations could be co-opted by the state. What better way to pacify students than to “legitimize” their concerns by making them “official” and legal. Some politicians might be perfectly happy to lure students into the web of legalistic negotiations and agreements as a means to supervise and control them. This is probably what is behind the proposal of PQ Education Minister Duchesne when he mused that student organizations could be granted trade union status, which would then allow them to make their demands through “proper” channels as opposed to in the streets.[6] Some student organisations that already have hierarchical organizational structures might find the idea of collective agreements appealing because they are already set-up for closed-door meetings and deals. Student politics and organizations have long been a stepping-stone for ambitious people who want to become politicians.  But for students who are organized on the basis of direct democracy, popular assemblies, and alliance building with other popular sectors, spending time negotiating collective agreements could easily, perhaps inevitably, lead to the bureaucratization and co-opting of the student movement, which, ultimately, means its defeat.[7]

The real battle, however, is not over whether student should or should not have collective agreements. That choice will be determined by particular groups at particular moments. What matters is what we are fighting for, and that is to the right to education. So, what is education?

“Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from ruin, which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.”   – Hannah Arendt

Bob Whitney is a long-time activist in movements for social justice and international solidarity, especially with Latin America. He teaches History at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, New Brunswick.

Originally published by the Montreal Media Co-op.

[1] See the extensive documentation and coverage about free education on the ASSÉ website: http://www.asse-solidarite.qc.ca/

[2] See the extensive documentation and coverage about free education on the ASSÉ website: http://www.asse-solidarite.qc.ca/

[4] Since this is not an academic essay, I will not provide a long list of works that document the contentious history of what rights are and how state and non-state actors have defined, and struggled over the meaning of rights. These works, however, are easy enough to find.

[5] The SDS was far from the first student group to experience such debates. In the 1920s and 30s student organizations throughout the world made alliances with unions, liberation movements, and leftist parties. Indeed, many student groups decided to dissolve so their members could participate in wider struggles for social change. An excellent general history of student movements is Mark Edelman Boren, Student Resistance: A History of the Unruly Subject. (New York and London: Routledge, 2001).

 

[6] Le Devoir, vendredi, 15 fevrier, 2013.

 

[7] L’accessibilité et la participation aux études supérieures Sommet —rencontre 2 Analyse et propositions de l’ASSE. http://www.pressegauche.org/spip.php?article12662; L’ASSE choisit de boycotter le Sommet. Le Devoir, lundi, 18 fevrier, 2013,  L’ASSE choisit de boycotter le Sommet; and ‘Quebec education summit – a public relations operation’. http://lifeonleft.blogspot.ca/2013/02/quebec-education-summit-public.html

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