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Students and workers walk to the legislature in a May Day protest Tuesday, May 1, 2012 in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Students and workers walk to the legislature in a May Day protest Tuesday, May 1, 2012 in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

HENRY MINTZBERG

An appeal to reason to Quebec's self-absorbed students Add to ...

Dear Student Strikers:

You are students, so I assume I can resort to reason, presenting arguments that you will consider, if not necessarily accept. Here’s hoping.

First, you are not striking. Strikes take place against employers. The Government of Quebec does not employ you. In fact, it supports you financially, and will do so even after the fee increases. So in a sense, you are striking against yourselves.

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You don’t like the legislation that will make you pay for a greater proportion of your education. You know what? There is lots of legislation that I don’t like either, some coming from governments that I deeply dislike, such as the current one in Ottawa. That’s life. It’s also democracy. We fight the legislation we don’t like in the legislatures, not on the street.

We can, of course, show our displeasure on the streets, legally. But your “strike” has passed that. The occasional violence aside, you are punishing the population. No wonder public opinion is turning against you.

Education, of course, serves society. You see your cause as noble: A more-educated society is a better society. True enough. But the prime beneficiaries of that education are the educated themselves. So the issue really comes down to this: To what extent should society be paying to educate you? Right now it pays most. The government proposes to pay a lower proportion, but still most.

Who is this society that pays for so much of your education? Not “society” as some abstraction, not “government” as some bottomless pit, but the people who pay taxes. Should a person with modest income, whose children are not capable of attending university, help pay for you to be educated? (You might wish to counter that the corporations that have enjoyed tax breaks should pay more. I agree fully. But then you should be protesting on the streets of Ottawa, not Quebec.)

Let me contrast higher education with medicare, because after all, when you or I get sick, that person of modest income has to pay for our treatment, even if he or she is well.

There are two critical differences. First, any of us can get sick, so we are all potential beneficiaries. With our taxes, we are buying health insurance. The person of modest income knows that the alternative to paying through taxes is two-tier health care, worse for him or her.

Second, we gain no advantage by being sick – or by being cured, for that matter – other than at best returning to our previous state of health. Students, in contrast, are gaining advantages from the education paid for mostly by the taxpayers. In effect, we already have two tiers in higher education.

Of course, that advantage will continue under the new fee structure. You know what? You’ve got a good deal. So maybe it is time you stopped striking against yourselves and the rest of us.

You think you are on the side of righteousness. Think again. That is the purpose of education.

Henry Mintzberg is Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University.

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