Quebec students have a lot to celebrate and New Brunswick students concerned about education and student debt are taking note. The Quebec student group CLASSE recently completed a three day speaking tour in New Brunswick from September 19th-21st with stops in Moncton, Fredericton and Saint John.
The tour came in the wake of good news for Quebec students: newly elected Quebec Premier Pauline Marois of the Parti Québécois had cancelled the proposed tuition hike and repealed controversial Bill 78, which restricted rights to assembly and freedoms of expression.
CLASSE, which stands for the Coalition Large de l’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale (Broad Coalition of the Association for a Syndicalist Solidarity), is the main group behind the 2012 Quebec student strikes, which will go down in history as the longest and largest student strike ever to occur in North America. Quebec students took to the streets in the hundreds of thousands to oppose a 75 per cent increase in tuition proposed by the recently defeated Charest Liberal government.
The two representatives of CLASSE who spoke in Fredericton were Alex Zawadzki-Turcotte of the Social Struggles Committee and Rushdia Mehreen of the Mobilization Committee. They spoke on a variety of topics ranging from the nature of education, to CLASSE as a feminist organization, to how Quebec students are effectively organized to win student demands.
CLASSE is opposed to the commercialization of universities and is worried about the effect this trend is having on the quality and content of a university education. For CLASSE, higher education teaches people the critical skill needed for democracy to function and how to learn; and is not just a means to pump narrowly skilled workers into the so-called knowledge economy.
The CLASSE representatives pointed to the cancellation of the tuition hike as a victory for the student movement and a clear example of the success of the use of student strikes as a tactic. Despite the victory, the members of CLASSE remain wary of the new Quebec government’s possible future plans for tuition increases indexed to inflation.
The movement credits its organizational structure with much of their success. While in other parts of Canada, student movements have tended to be top-down organizations, CLASSE is a federation of student departmental organizations governed by democratic general assemblies at the local level. The ability of CLASSE to effectively engage in direct actions and mobilize for a strike is attributed to this democratic model.
Actions and positions taken by CLASSE are always initiated bottom up and never top down. “Because of the process, every student has power to impact and debate the positions taken at the national level,” said Mehreen.
The structure of CLASSE has allowed them to credibly pursue what they call “combative syndicalism,” which recognizes the need of students to collectively fight to win specific demands. During the talks, this approach was credited with ensuring the lowest tuition fees in Canada for Quebec students, coupled with the highest rate of first generation university students and the highest enrollment of students from middle income backgrounds.
Students have honed their skills at collective demands over the past several years. Successful struggles of seven previous student strikes have resulted in Quebec students paying the lowest tuition in Canada and for the successful financial aid programs that they have today.
The speaking tour from CLASSE comes at a critical time for New Brunswick students. The presidents of New Brunswick universities are currently in negotiations with the provincial government to decide the funding levels of universities, and consequently, the tuition schedule over the next four years. Students, professors, university staff, and community members are being excluded from the negotiations.
Tuition fees rose by $200 at New Brunswick universities last year and by an additional $175 this year; this means that over the past two years, students have paid an extra $575 in tuition fees towards their degree than those who graduated two years ago.
The Alward government and university presidents in New Brunswick have made it clear that this trend will likely continue and that students can expect similar tuition increases over the next four years.
Kate Price, a Saint Thomas University student who helped to organize the tour, asked “Why is the government forced to negotiate with students in Quebec, but in New Brunswick, the provincial government rarely feels the need to even feign interest in students issues?”
This year’s provincial budget was the first in over five years not to mention the funding of post-secondary education.
“Do Quebec students deserve to be called ‘greedy’ and ‘entitled’, as they are often labelled by the reactionary media; or should we be taking notes on their methods?” asked Micah O’Donnell, a University of New Brunswick student who attended the Fredericton event.
“New Brunswick students are taking notice and maybe it is time to attempt something similar here,” added O’Donnell.