By Donna Nebenzahl
May 26, 2012
MONTREAL - The urge to protest against university tuition hikes might seem foolhardy when students face the possible loss of a school semester, the sacrifice of time spent marching whatever the weather, not to mention the danger of confronting helmeted police, and the increasingly likely possibility of injury and arrest.
Yet they continue to do so, as worried parents fret, pundits fume and the government of Quebec Premier Jean Charest remains set squarely against them.
So why are the students so determined to keep this protest alive?
First of all, they're highly motivated even if their actions make them uncomfortable, says social psychologist Benjamin Giguere. His research paper on the 2005 Quebec student strike that routed the Charest government's plan to cut $103 million in bursaries examined the determinants of collective action.
"The average person protesting isn't typically someone who is causing social disorder," said Giguere. "And even if it's a bit scary when there are others breaking things, they go back, to walk in the rain."
They do this, paradoxically, because they care enough to make sacrifices in the hope of helping the group, and because this movement has offered something many students have discovered over the passing weeks - a sense of shared identity and shared grievance.
This is the winning combination, according to Giguere, who has recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship at McGill University and is heading to the University of Guelph this fall. "They may individually have other types of struggles," he said, "but it is the culmination of perceived shared grievances that leads to collective action."
This sharing has put students on the streets for weeks - 14 and counting. "It's a lot of effort, to come out every night, for many days in a row, making this happen," he said. "And even if we see the students questioning themselves, and some of them show signs of lack of self-control, they're still coming out. There has to be motivation; it's not just an impulse. They feel a bond, a reason to connect."
Young people have always been crucial participants in protest movements, says Francis Fox Piven, a political sociologist at the Graduate Centre, City University of New York, who in 2006 published Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America. "First, they're energetic and stronger, needed qualities in a protest," she said. "They're also more hopeful and enthusiastic; they still believe that the world can be a better place."
Student protest also raises another dimension, she says, one that we might have underestimated: We believe as a society that education is the way to get ahead and improve our social status, but while most students want to be educated and therefore have a good life, universities are becoming less and less accessible.
In Canada the cost of education is much less than in the U.S., where university is only accessible, Piven says, "on the condition that students accept onerous levels of indebtedness." But even here, according to the Canadian Federation of Students - representing more than one-half million students from more than 80 universities and colleges across the country - student debt now totals more than $14.5 billion, with the level of Quebec student debt among the lowest at $13,300 per student. That's right alongside Newfoundland and Labrador, where there have been minimal tuition increases since 1999 and where, in 2007, student debt fell after the province implemented a needs-based grant program.
"We are in a situation where it has never been more expensive to get a post-secondary education, or more of a requirement," said Roxanne Dubois, national chairperson of the CFS, "which is why despite the fact that tuition fees are going up, students realize they need that piece of paper to make a decent living in Canada."
But rather than investing in post-secondary education, "governments want us to pay," she says, echoing the sentiment of many students marching in Quebec today.
A lot can happen on a university campus, a fertile ground for ideas, says Bruce Hicks, political science professor at Concordia University. "It's about ideology, and a youthful desire to change the world.
"Youth very much believe that ideas are powerful," he said. "In Quebec, an ideological debate is taking place in which government and students are on different sides."
While an average person might look at the protest about tuition increases and get a limited message on a visceral level - one that is often tainted by reports of violence - the students see education as a right, an investment in the future of society, he says. "Quebec students aren't looking at the American model of education, which can be had on borrowed money. They're looking at the European model, like Scandinavia, where not only is tuition free but you get money for books and ancillary costs."
The other aspect that makes Quebec different from the rest of Canada and the U.S., he says, has to do with this province's history of militant unionism that is very much a part of the social fabric.
The sharing of grievances - feeling disadvantaged or short-changed - has led to a growing sense of shared identity, the force that gives student protest its impetus and power as an agent of change, Giguere says. Many of these protesters believe "that their behaviour is going to change something. If as a group they agree with this, then it is real for them and they're motivated."
In the United States, Piven says, development is often described in terms of the role of elites and the effects of institutions, where change happens gradually. "We black out the history of the great movements that have changed history dramatically."
The history of protest movements is rarely cited, she says; even students protesting today are unaware of the impact of protest movements on the pattern of our development.
The student movement of the 1960s, she points out, protested against the exploitation of higher education. "They protested the corporatization of the university. Little did they know how much this trend would accelerate."
The Occupy movement is closely linked with recent student protests, Piven says, because its underlying theme is the rise of extreme inequality, which protesters believe cannot coexist with democracy. "Now it's the neglected notion of free education."
She uses her own university, City University of New York, as a case in point. Founded in 1847 as the City College of New York, "its purpose was to provide free education to the children of working people," Piven says. So the college was free until 1977-78, when New York faced a fiscal crisis.
"The banks had become very influential in the resolution of that crisis and forced union cutbacks and wage cutbacks - and started tuition at CUNY," she said. "What could have justified eliminating that free education, when we were a richer country?"
At CUNY, and across the world, students have increasingly turned out to protest against tuition hikes. Students marched there last week, as they had in November, the same month police pepper sprayed protesters at University of California, Davis. Tuition fee protests have been held from Ontario to the U.K., Chile to New Zealand.
In March 2011, students were part of the more than 250,000-strong march in Central London against spending cuts. They marched again in November, in large part through the efforts of the National Union of Students, a confederation of 600 student unions throughout the U.K. whose main tenets are "Equality, Democracy, Collectivism."
Students, NUS president Liam Burns said recently in The Gazette, "face an unprecedented attack on our future before it even begins."
And while protest movements don't win everything they want, they do win some things, Piven says. "Sit-down strikes got unionization, a protest movement was responsible for the abolition of slavery, the Great Society was the victory of the black freedom movements."
The protest movement against tuition increases with its symbolic red square is now being discussed around the world. Perhaps that red square is a pivotal symbol of these protests, or perhaps it's the new law - Bill 78, which curtails assembly - that has brought criticism of government from new quarters.
Described as excessive by the Canadian Bar Association, it has prompted Louis Masson, president of the Quebec Bar Association, to comment that while we must respect the law, "we must also respect fundamental freedoms, like the freedom to protest peacefully, the freedom of speech and the freedom of association."
Several sections of Bill 78 will likely be struck down, constitutional lawyer Julius Grey told The Gazette on Tuesday. "There's no doubt that this contravenes the charter on all kinds of grounds."
The concern about Bill 78 might actually engender much-needed sympathy for the student cause, because a movement succeeds when it reaches people, says Hicks. He describes this change as an emotional heuristic, something that does not necessarily tap into an idea but the emotion behind it. "Something can happen that will resonate with people, causing them to either switch sides or move farther in the direction in which they're already moving. It's a groundbreaking moment, which isn't about politics or the media."
What students choose to do in the coming weeks and months will flow from their continued bond, their "coming together over perceived shared issues that builds a sense of struggle," as Gigure says.
They are motivated to change, and every action counts, says NUS leader Burns, who wrote in the Huffington Post last year: "Even our smallest choices make a difference, and some of them can end up having a bigger effect than we could possibly have imagined."