Quebec has traditionally had the lowest tuition fees in the country and a history of student strikes is, in large part, responsible for those low fees.
Now, I know what you’re thinking — how do students go on strike?
Individual students’ unions hold general assemblies for all members, call a strike vote, and then if it passes, students don’t show up to class, shutting down the university. Instead of going to class, they will set up picket lines, lead demonstrations and do whatever they can to pressure their universities and the government.
In most of Canada, student strikes are unheard of, but around the world, they’re a fairly common tactic used by students fighting for an accessible education system.
Shortly after the creation of the CEGEP system in Quebec, students went on strike.
They weren’t only pushing for a more affordable education, they were also calling for broader changes to the post-secondary education system. The 1968 student strike in Quebec pushed the government to create the Université de Quebec system, and the tuition freeze that remained in place until 1990.
Since then, Quebec students have continued to go on strike whenever there is a threat to accessible, affordable education — in 1974, 1978, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1996 and 2005.
The most recent student strike was the largest in Quebec’s history. At the height of the strike in 2005, over 230,000 students in Quebec were on strike. Some of the larger demonstrations during the strike saw close to 100,000 students protesting in Montreal.
In last year’s budget, the Quebec government announced its plan to increase tuition fees by 75 per cent over the next few years.
Students in Quebec are fighting back. And if we look at history, they’ve got a pretty good chance of winning.
In November, over 200,000 students took part in a one-day strike, and tens of thousands of students protested in the streets of Montreal.
Now, over 130,000 students in Quebec are on strike. And the majority are on unlimited general strike, meaning they won’t go back to class until the government reverses this decision. The number of students out on strike is growing almost every day.
Student strikes work because you can’t teach an empty class. Every time students go on strike in Quebec, the government and university administrations threaten students with the loss of the semester.
But students have never lost a semester due to a strike, and instead the government will often give in to students’ demands, and have universities rearrange schedules to ensure everyone finishes the semester.
Why? Because if 250,000 students repeat a semester, that’s a lot of spaces not available to incoming students. Imagine hundreds of thousands of parents angry that there’s no room for their child to start college or university in the fall.
Students in the rest of Canada could learn a lot from the Quebec student movement.
Students in Quebec are forcing the government to re-think their plan to increase tuition fees by 75 per cent.
Student strikes work. History is on the side of students.
Originally published in The Aquinian.