The Forgotten Issues of Quebec’s Student Strike

Higher education

The ongoing three-month strike by Quebec university students over tuition increases has sparked near-unanimous outrage from members of Canada’s mainstream commentariat — and not just over the violence, but over the very content of what students are demanding.

What do these spoiled rich kids have to protest against, the pundits wail, when already they pay the lowest tuition in Canada, and Canadian tuition in general is but a fraction of that in the United States? They are unrealistic. They feel entitled. In Andrew Coyne’s words: “The student leaders, at this point, are absolutely delusional in their sense of their importance to the universe.”

What is rarely included in this chorus of condemnation is an honest look at higher education elsewhere in the world. Dozens of countries offer free post-secondary education — not just in wealthy Northern Europe, but also in Cuba, Sri Lanka, and Botswana. In some cases, they share these benefits with international students as well as citizens, and even offer cost-of-living allowances. There is nothing in the Canadian experience that would make it impossible for us to gradually implement such practices. It is simply a matter of using tax dollars to spread the costs around — something we already do with K-12 education.

Some object that students are the ones who primarily benefit from their education, and therefore they should be the ones to pay. But this argument fails to acknowledge that society as a whole gains from a highly educated population.

However, if people decide that students should be made to sacrifice something for the benefit of a higher education, perhaps conditions could be placed on free tuition. For instance, graduates could have their student debts wiped clean in return for working a certain number of years in whatever jurisdiction offers them the deal. The number of years required could even be reduced if the student agrees to spend them working somewhere deemed especially important — such as remote rural communities or perhaps the developing world.

Another common objection to free tuition is that it is highly regressive. Most university students come from middle- and upper-class backgrounds, this argument runs. To divert society’s resources for their benefit, by reducing or eliminating tuition fees, only increases the problem of inequality.

In a way this is true, but we must realize that it becomes less true as the cost of education drops. Tuition fees are a barrier to higher education — especially for those with low incomes. They may not be the only barrier, or even the most important. Some evidence shows that parental influence and early formative experiences play a larger role in determining whether or not an individual will attend university. But while tuition fees may not be the whole problem, they are certainly a substantial part of it. Any comprehensive program to make post-secondary education more accessible for everyone — regardless of one’s finances — ought to include the phasing out of tuition fees.

Equality of opportunity is what it all comes down to. In the current war of words over the Quebec student strike — over the behaviour of that “self-serving, self-satisfied, self-dramatizing collection of idiots” (quoting the inexhaustible Andrew Coyne once again) — I hope that this basic principle does not get buried.

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President Obama and Marriage Equality

Same-Sex Marriage

First thing’s first. Barack Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage yesterday should be celebrated. On the heels of similar pronouncements by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, this marks the first time that a sitting US President has taken such a bold stance in favour of marriage equality.

However, just as light can be considered both a wave and a particle in quantum mechanics, every announcement by an elected official exhibits a similar duality. Was Obama’s decision motivated primarily by principle or by politics?

I believe there were elements of both. On the surface, a stronger case can be made for principle. Although most recent polls show a slim majority or plurality of Americans in favour of legalized gay marriage, it is still an incredibly touchy subject. And with Mitt Romney, Obama’s soon-to-be-confirmed opponent in November’s Presidential election, railing against the evils of not just gay marriage but even civil unions, one would think that Obama could safely have continued speaking favourably of such watered down compromises in order to pacify the left — who after all have virtually nowhere else to go — without overly alienating the right. So the fact that Obama rejected this strategy suggests that he acted for reasons other than mere electoral advantage.

However, according to administration officials, Obama was already planning to come out in favour of gay marriage in a matter of months — i.e. closer to the election. Biden’s announcement simply forced his hand. If this is true, the Obama campaign must have seen some kind of political benefit in backing gay marriage — probably as a means of mobilizing the base and portraying the President as strong and decisive.

In fact, if Obama can be accused of cynicism and political gaming at all, it is not for the announcement he made yesterday, but for his failure to do so earlier. The President almost certainly supported gay marriage all along, as he admitted while running for Illinois state Senate in 1996 — back when it was far more of a liability. The fact that, in the intervening years, he stuffed his true beliefs back in the closet (so to speak) reflects a concern that they might have jeopardized his ever-escalating political ambitions.

But different times and different campaign strategies have changed all that. Politics and principle have finally converged to compel the President to make the right choice. This does not mean that legalized gay weddings will immediately sprout up in all fifty states. But the cultural shift is undeniable. Obama has done something without precedent, and it falls on officials in all three branches of government and at federal and state levels, as well as on individual Americans, to act. Will they one day look back upon their behaviour with shame, like those who resisted women’s suffrage and desegregation? Or will they join with the current of history and stand up for equality?

Obama has made his decision. Romney has made his. Let’s see how these next few months play out.

Another National Post Letter

This one is about the Harper government’s crackdown on the charitable sector despite its important contribution to our democracy. Please see today’s National Post — or click here — for my letter.

A Multi-Partisan Approach to Environmental Protection

I am a strong believer in the Green Party. It plays an essential role. Environmentalists cannot afford to patiently wait around for traditional parties to see the light and pass the necessary laws to avert catastrophe.

That being said, Canadians have been slow to embrace the Green Party, and that slowness has been magnified by an unfair and unrepresentative electoral system. The Greens’ single-member delegation in the House of Commons — a triumph in its own right — is too small a basket for environmentalists to consolidate all our eggs. And in the face of the slowly unfolding plans of Stephen Harper’s majority government to eviscerate environmental regulations in Canada (the “streamlining” of the assessment process that I’ve written about before was just a start), we need to try something new.

Green leader Elizabeth May, with the help of any other MPs concerned about the environment, needs to create a multi-partisan Environmental Caucus in the House of Commons — somewhat akin to the (misleadingly named) Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism, or the various congressional caucuses in the US and all-party parliamentary groups in the UK. It would be considerably less “official” and more “activist” than the House’s Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development. Open to MPs from all parties, this informal caucus could potentially present the most formidable and unified challenge to Harper’s radically anti-environmental agenda. If joined by a handful of green-leaning Conservatives, it could even sow the seeds of division within the governing party. (Please allow my indulgence in fantasy. It’s all I’ve got!)

Might this strategy result in the appropriation of my beloved Green Party’s values and the stealing of its political thunder? It’s possible — especially if the strategy is successful. But environmentalists’ allegiance is to the planet, not to any party, and at the moment this represents our best path forward. We cannot wait another three years to boot the bastards out. The environment needs parliamentary protection against a short-sighted and power-hungry executive right now.