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Students hold flags during a march to protest against tuition hikes in downtown Montreal, Quebec April 28, 2012. (CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/REUTERS/CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/REUTERS)
Students hold flags during a march to protest against tuition hikes in downtown Montreal, Quebec April 28, 2012. (CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/REUTERS/CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/REUTERS)

PIERRE MARTIN

Spoiled Kids? Hardly Add to ...

Like many of my colleagues, students and fellow Quebeckers, I’ve had it up to here with the student strike. Past is the day when something positive might have been wrung from this conflict, whose costs now seem to exceed any potential benefits.

My department, with its 1,200 students, has just cancelled the summer term, and we still have to go through a third of the winter one. It’s a mess, and things are even worse in many CEGEPs.

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This being said, I’m not entirely unsympathetic to some of what the students are protesting against. A quantum leap in tuition fees and a looming turn toward a more mercantile approach to higher education are legitimate causes for concern.

The problem is that nightly downtown riots, camping nights in front of the Premier’s residence and shouting matches don’t count as serious debate. Such actions disrupt lives, they annoy everyone and, most regrettably, they close minds – and a student whose mind is closed can’t be called a student.

Closed minds, of course, are not the exclusive purview of the protesters. Many of their critics, in their zeal to dismiss the movement, have demonstrated a remarkable inability to understand the distinct context, history and philosophies that underpin Quebec’s education system.

Canadians outside Quebec are shocked at the students’ reaction to the proposed tuition hike because they assume Quebec students are spoiled kids who should compare their privileged situation with that of other provinces. They don’t. Our students compare themselves to their baby-boomer parents, who had an even better deal, and many of them hold their elders accountable for failing to deliver on a promise of the Quiet Revolution: to move from “low tuitions” to “no tuitions.”

This is an unrealistic ideal, as even a cursory look at the fiscal strains of provinces and U.S. states helps us understand, but it’s a legitimate one and we can’t ignore it if we want to understand what’s going on.

Quebec’s system of higher education stands apart, in terms of its predominant language, its structure, and (for now) its low tuition cost. My own (admittedly hyperbolic) comments on this distinctiveness have been interpreted as a sign that Quebec students live in autarky.

Nothing could be further from the truth. One thing that can’t be said of Quebec students is that they’re isolated from the outside world. Indeed, the proportion of Quebec students who can use two or more languages is greater than it is in other provinces, they participate in an ever-expanding web of exchanges around the world (the Université de Montréal has more than 600 deals in 90 countries), international studies programs and internships abroad are more popular than ever, and the faculty is as diverse as can be found anywhere.

Some critics derisively note that the boycott leaders are in the social sciences and humanities. They seize the opportunity to dismiss these fields as dead ends. The only degrees worth pursuing, in this view, are those that lead directly into professions, turning universities into mere training centres. Forget about learning critical thinking and self-expression; that was good for the previous generations, not this one.

This criticism doesn’t even reflect the reality. While social science and humanities programs still value the fundamentals of a liberal arts education, they also make genuine efforts to link theoretical teachings to real-world applications. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much what all our students will gain from this noisy episode: a much-too-costly unpaid internship in applied politics, with no credits.

Pierre Martin is a professor of political science at the Université de Montréal.

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