Why I'm cheering for the Québec protesters

Submitted by Wajid Sayeed on May 31, 2012 - 20:57

Reading through some of the coverage pertaining to the ongoing tuition crisis in Québec, I've noticed certain people arguing vociferously against the students' demands. Let's call them "Team Race to the Bottom."

Team Race to the Bottom argues thusly: "The students are whiny, spoiled brats. I paid x times more than them for my education, and I didn't go 'on strike.' If they lived in the US, then they'd know what an expensive education was." With regard to the new emergency laws, they argue "Big deal, so they have to let the police know about their march route in advance. In some countries, they wouldn't even be allowed to march at all!"

Team Race to the Bottom urges us to compare ourselves to whoever suffers the lowest level of rights and freedoms, and then chides whoever asks for better for being insufficiently tough or excessively demanding.

My university education in Ontario included a 4 year Bachelors' followed by 4 years of medical school. Although I had generous scholarships to help me with both, worked during most of the summers, lived in a basement apartment, don't drink alchohol, rarely ate out, had all my clothes gifted to me by my mom, bought groceries from a discount grocer, took the bus everywhere for the first 3 years of medical school, and only bought a 10-year-old car for the last one, I still graduated with over six figures in debt.

Now, I'm not alone in my medical school class, or even in Canada. Indeed, carrying a large debt load is now the norm for middle-class families, and the average student debt across Canada is reported to be $27,000. Quebec, notably, pulls that average down, with average student debt being $15,000.

Where debt is concerned, the Charest government, by raising tuition fees, is pulling Quebec deeper towards the Race to the Bottom. "Our tuition is the lowest in North America," goes the argument, "we can afford to pay a little more."  In so arguing, Charest is attempting to condemn Québecois to the life of debt-slavery that awaits most North Americans already - owned by the bank, they will spend the rest of their lives paying off large loans at interest, diverting the wealth of the middle-class, writ large, into the coffers of banks rather than back into the government (through taxes), the wider economy (through spending on goods and services), or their own savings.

Despite my large student debt, I don't begrudge the Quebec students their demands - instead, I applaud them.  I think we should, as a country, be racing to the top.

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I don't have the stats handy, but I recall reading that increased tuition results in increased average income of students. This despite the increased availability of 'debt'. It seems impressive that in the past 2 generations, we have taken higher education from an elite sport to a public good and back again.

tarek : )

The CFMS did a study in 2008 or so in which they found that medical students overwhelmingly came from high-SES backgrounds. For an Ethics project I surveyed medical school applicants and asked them pretty much the same questions  as were asked on the CFMS survey and found that they were also all from high-SES backgrounds.

The determining factor on pursuing higher education seems to be whether or not your parents pursued it. Quebec, despite having the lowest tuition in the country also has one of the lowest university enrollment rates.

So the argument that high tuition makes education less "accessible" may not be true, or the effect may be not be as dramatic as is imagined.  It does, however require those pursuing it who lack the cash to pay up front to be owned by the bank when they graduate.