For the past 12 weeks, students of Quebec’s colleges and universities have been on strike against Premier Jean Charest’s proposal to increase tuition fees by 75%. The indefinite strike involves more than 170,000 students and is now attracting high school students. Broad layers of the general public are sympathetic to the movement.
The most prominent student organisation involved is CLASSE (the Broad Coalition of the Association for Student Union Solidarity), which represents more than half the striking students. They began preparations for the strike early last year by issuing articles about the role of youth in the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement.
Young people have played an important role in revolutions in the past, and are playing a vital role in the major uprisings of today in the Middle East, Europe and the hundreds of cities worldwide that took part in Occupy.
The freshness and enthusiasm of youth is vital to any serious attempt at real social change. Youth are less burdened by past defeats and the chains of a career or personal debt that hold back so many of the older generations from active engagement. We are able and willing to challenge the status quo, of which we have yet to become a part.
The fee hike issue has mobilised huge numbers of young Quebecois who now feel confident to question the validity of government policies, opening up discussion about the broader social and economic conditions that gave rise to the fee hike in the first place.
In a statement titled “Toward a Social Strike” issued by CLASSE, the students made clear that although the movement has focused on the fee hike, “it is not unaware that this measure is integrally linked to a larger project affecting elementary and secondary education, the healthcare sector and the unfettered development of natural resources”.
So not only does CLASSE wish to defeat the fee hike, but it also wants to “challenge the economic imperative that informs the policies of our governments”. This economic imperative is neoliberalism, which “clearly and definitively involves the dismantling of public services aimed at privatising what remains of the commons”.
Neoliberalism doesn’t just affect the Quebecois education system — it is a capitalist ideology that has spread across the world and other sectors of society.
It took shape as a reaction to declining business profit rates during the 1970s, but has since become the guiding principle of most ruling governments and parties, including the Liberal and Labor parties in Australia.
The doctrine’s unflinching faith in the “free market” explains its drive to remove government regulation of private industries and to privatise public assets and services.
If the Quebecois students were to limit their campaign to defeating the fee hike they may win, for now at least. But without defeating the underlying rationale for the fee hike, it would only return to haunt students later on, perhaps in another form. This is why the radical student movement has decided it is important to extend the campaign to oppose neoliberalism in general.
The students know that they cannot defeat neoliberalism on their own and are trying to draw other parts of Quebecois society into the struggle. They are doing this by explaining to the broader population the links between the fee hike and other neoliberal government policies such as attacks on public health care, massive lay-offs, the casualisation of jobs, attacks on women’s rights and new assaults on indigenous land. In this way they hope to inspire a general “social strike” to defeat the neoliberal government.
But is defeating the neoliberals enough? Even if neoliberalism is defeated, its underlying foundation, the capitalist system, may very well survive, leaving the base for its regeneration.
And although neoliberalism is a particularly nasty capitalist ideology, this is not to say that other forms of capitalism are benign. Exploitation and growing inequality are inevitable characteristics of capitalism.
A free and quality education can only be assured when we have a society that looks after the needs of people rather than prioritising profits. In Quebec, the young are once again at the forefront of a struggle for a better future.
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