Spring in the step

The extraordinary success of the Quebecois student movement in recent years is due to the fact that it is one of the most politically active and militant student movements in the world. On 2 April 2015, Quebec students demonstrated against the most recent wave of tuition hikes as part of austerity packages proposed by the provincial Quebecois government. Over 130,000 students voted to strike, with more student associations to hold votes in the coming weeks. Organisers are hoping for the return of the famous ‘Maple Spring’ a student movement in Quebec in the summer of 2012. It successfully prevented 75 per cent tuition hikes, overturned an unpopular anti-protest law and brought down the provincial government.

Meanwhile, in Australia, Senate crossbenchers recently rejected Education minister Christopher Pyne’s higher education reform bill. This was amid claims that Minister Pyne was holding 1700 jobs of Australian scientists to ransom if the senate blocked his bill. Under the proposed reforms, universities would set their own tuition prices, leading to a sharp rise in fees and possible $100,000 debts for students. Yet in spite of the recent defeat, the Education minister has vowed he would ‘never give up’ on attempts to reintroduce the bill. It seems that the struggle over university funding in Australia is just heating up.

There are a number of crucial lessons that Australian students can learn from the victories of their Quebecois compatriots. We face a similar adversary to the Quebecois, with both governments seeking to implement an austerity agenda of privatisation, deregulation and user-pays system. The underlying logic of the austerity measures is based on a common myth that the public has been living beyond its means and the government must tighten public spending by reducing funding to essential social services such as health and education. While such policies have become the norm around the world, certain excesses of the neoliberal agenda have been resisted. In Australia, a resurgence of student activism was successful in shifting public opinion against deregulation and defeating the legislation.

To put things in perspective, Australian investment in higher education is woeful. Public spending is among the lowest in OECD countries. Following recent slashes, $1.1 billion will be withdrawn from higher education over the next three years. Proponents of deregulation have argued that it is individual students, rather than the general public, who should foot the bill for higher education. The appeal of this argument is based on how one conceives of education, as a public good that should be available to all or a private luxury of the already privileged and wealthy.

Studies demonstrate that the public benefits twice as much as the individual from public investment in higher education. Yet the Education minister seeks to continue a transformation of higher education into a commodified service that will be increasingly out of reach for many high school graduates. Following massive public rejection of the proposed reforms, it is obvious that a small group of elites within lobby group, Universities Australia, and the Vice-Chancellors of the Group of Eight universities are now out of touch with the majority of Australians. They are acting in misguided, narcissistic self-interest, not to the benefit of the institutions they represent.

In contrast, Quebec has the lowest tuition fees of Canada, which have been maintained by efforts from Quebec’s largest student organisation, Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (Assé). The continued victories of the Quebecois student movement show that it is not the most immiserated of students who will fight back against education cuts, but the most organised.

I suggest there are four secrets to the success of the Quebecois student movement:

1) They offer a radical vision of free universal education.

What separates Assé from other student organisations is its persistent calls for higher education to be completely government funded through the gradual phase out of tuition fees. The radical demands of Assé transformed it from a relatively small body into one of the largest and most prominent student organisations, claiming to represent over 70 per cent of striking students during 2012.

Assé do not simply oppose fee hikes when introduced, they effectively connect short-term goals of defeating fee increases with a long-term vision of education as a universal right for all. The simplicity and clarity of Assé’s program has enabled it to build inspiring long-term campaigns and add thousands of students to their ranks. The great irony with the total lack of traction with this concept in Australia is that free tertiary education was a reality for many of the current front bench of the Federal Government (it was completely free from 1974 to 1989). Similar fully funded models currently operate in Germany, Finland, Norway and Chile. There are a number of ways such a scheme could be afforded, Assé have suggested a popular, modest bank tax.

2) They organise through direct democracy

The enormous power of Assé is embodied in its many general assemblies that form the burning heart of the student movement. Members meet many times a year to discuss the priorities and direction of the campaign. Students can deliberate on policies and make decisions through a public show of hands. The executive branch is bound to enact decisions of the general assemblies and is also subject to immediate recall by members. These measures ensure the grassroots and bottom-up structure of the organisation, reminiscent of Occupy and other horizontalist social movements.

Through these participatory structures, Quebec students feel empowered and have a sense of belonging in a broader struggle. There is a genuine sense of ownership over the decisions made by the unions. The active nature of its members enables student organisations to mobilise huge numbers of students at rallies, the largest of which on 22 March 2012, consisted of 200,00 people and was the largest protest in Quebec’s history.

3) They put pressure on government through student strikes and direct action

The Quebecois students are fortunate to draw on a distinctive culture of social and political struggle going back to the ‘Quiet Revolution’ of the 1960s. But far from resting on their past achievements, the potency of the student organisations is due to long-term organisational efforts and militant strategies of rolling strikes and picketing. In 2012, the call for an indefinite strike placed the unions in a powerful negotiating position against the government, which could not afford to delay an entire cohort of students into the workforce by a year. One-day strikes and marches help build the momentum of a campaign, but an ongoing general strike with no fixed end date provided the maximum opportunity to voice student demands. Such action does not arise through spontaneous student enthusiasm, it is the result of the mobilisation of students through rank-and-file grassroots organising.

Strikes, blockades and other contentious political activities will always be controversial and have their share of detractors. Any time disruptive political protests take place there is a familiar response: ‘I sympathise with their position, but I can’t agree on how they are going about it.’ The benefit of strikes is that they build a culture of solidarity, which was essential in Quebec in creating a unified front. When the government attempted to exclude the radical Assé from negotiations in an attempt to divide the movement, other more moderate student bodies walked out of the meeting.

4) They create broader alliances across social groups

Quebec students are not afraid to ask for solidarity and offer support to other struggles. Creating equivalences across different groups connects students with trade unions, teachers, lawyers and environmental organisations in a broader struggle against the government’s austerity plans. The current wave of protests is even more connected to broader struggles than in 2012. They are seeking to inspire a larger ‘social struggle’ against the ideals behind austerity measures through linking their protest with other government attacks.

Unfortunately, the current student unions in Australia are an embarrassing affair, dominated by the strange, portentous creatures known as Young Labor, whose inter-factional rivalries conjure images of gang altercations from West Side Story. To live up to the example set by the Quebecois there needs to be less party hacks and more inspiring examples set by activists, such as the protesters on Q&A, who have the courage to stand behind their convictions.

James Muldoon

James Muldoon is a political theorist and philosopher who has taught at Monash University, Swinburne University and the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy.

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  1. Interesting and warranted critique of Australian student union ‘creature gangs’.

    “The Education minister seeks to continue a transformation of higher education into a commodified service that will be increasingly out of reach for many high school graduates.”

    I agree that it would *seem* this way and perhaps it’s healthy for the majority of the public to fear the deprivation of education for their own children, but is it really more of, say, an attempt to inculcate everyone (as in, unless you’re unskilled and limited in your career path, you need a degree to do anything) with a covert ball and chain via the consequences of public/private debt psychology?

    The ideological servitude makes more sense to me than the economic benefits of letting uni’s do their own thing.

    Comparative analysis is wonderful, but “education” means different things in different places. And to different people: VCE students here are growing up with the idea that “education” costs, without having a precedent to question- will a university education teach them that it could be otherwise?

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