The Op-Ed Remains the Same

Yesterday, the Quebec student strike claimed if not its first than its most prominent casualty. Line Beauchamp, Quebec Minister for Education, resigned her post in both Premier Jean Charest’s cabinet and the National Assembly. As for Ms. Beauchamp, rest assured I imagine she has some sort of severance package to cushion her fall into the private sector, and given her age and education I would further assume that her student loan debt, if she had one, has been paid off for some time. I’m sure a teaching gig awaits at U Laval, or U de Montreal, provided she returns to school for an MA or PhD. As soon as they reopen. Enjoy your summer, Line.

This was a calculated move on the part of the Charest government. It’s akin to the Canadiens firing their head coach during a slump. It’s a distraction. It gives the scribes and pundits (entities complicit in this discussion) something other than the issue at hand to feed the news cycle for a day or two while the franchise, in this case the Quebec government, regroups and plans their next course of action before the season (ahem, semester) is lost. Randy Cunneyworth was not considered for the position, Charest instead going with Treasury Board President Michelle Courchesne. I’m assuming she speaks French.

The intermediary should have provided a moment for reflection for both sides, and perhaps a more enlightened and calm discourse emerging on the other side. But no such luck. It has been fascinating to see how Canada’s op-ed columnists and political pundits have covered this story from afar, removed both from the university experience and Quebec itself. It’s difficult for me to understand why there isn’t more solidarity, why not just students but reasonable taxpayers aren’t more concerned with how the student strike has been reflected in the media, and furthermore how the mismanagement of subsidized tuition shares multiple parallels with other forms of social spending.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has asked his provincial brethren to join him in an effort to rein in doctor’s fees across Canada in an attempt to get a hold of a healthcare system in crisis. Wrote McGuinty in a plea for a united front:

“I recognize that each province and territory has its own plans to reform medicare and each of us has our own starting point for payment arrangements with doctors,” the letter states. […] But I urge you to consider how we might work together through strong, forward-looking reforms such as those we are implementing in Ontario.”

A few columnists noted that asking doctors to be paid less, in some cases annual billings of $600000, “was dealing with the symptom, but not the disease.” And yet, from coast-to-coast, paper-to-paper, who is asking the patients to pay more? Who is asking pregnant mothers to double up on prenatal care bills? Who is in favour of asking the sick to pay more to maintain a healthy, accessible medicare system? Who is saying, but Ontario pays the some of the lowest healthcare in North America? And why isn’t the Harper government asking the provinces to come together to discuss the crisis of student loan debt. And it is a crisis.

Graeme Hamilton of The National Post has taken to attacking the extremist measures of some of the protesters, but in doing so lumps all the protesters together as one. Hamilton is concerned with how the protests have infringed upon the rights of others, apparently with no concept of what a protest is or how they are traditionally successful. He writes:

“Mr. Charest said the government remains ‘very determined’ and considers the proposed tuition hikes ‘important for the future of Quebec.’ Starting in September, fees would rise by $254 a year for seven years, which would still leave tuition below the Canadian average.

Ms. Beauchamp’s resignation should be the ultimate compromise — ultimate in the sense of final. It is bad enough that the masked thugs have been allowed to trample people’s rights this long, but to let them win would send a very dangerous message.”

The argument that Quebec has the lowest tuition rates is the mantra of the uninformed and lazy, and clouds the larger issue of accessible education and student debt. It’s inattentive writing, and it ignores the bigger picture. Another tired trope of this fight, is that $254-a-year is not a lot of money. It is. And though I’m hesitant to compare this protest to social movements of the past, there is a well-traveled history of difficult measures employed to bring an end to social injustice. Sometimes, it’s the only way to get attention. And rest assured, the student loan debt across this country is a social injustice.

Over at The Globe and Mail, Margaret Wente again belittled the students. In her op-ed piece for the Globe, whose move towards a pay-for-content model will thankfully take Wente from prominent annoyance to marginalized boomer, she again condemned those with degrees like her two in English, “I hate to say this, but if your degree is in sociology, psych, art history or much else on the soft side, you are a dime a dozen.” This notion, which is not unique to Wente, that arts and humanities degrees are useless is an exhausted argument, and one that lacks of effort or understanding of the purpose of universities. As I among many have argued, a BA and an MA are not about getting jobs, they are about developing critical thinking skills, which Wente gleefully mocks.

Interestingly, one point she attempts to make employing the device of satire (no doubt learned during her useless degrees) is entirely incorrect. Wente argues:

“If our universities are producing three sociology and psych graduates for every job that actually requires a working knowledge of those fields, well, that’s not their concern. Besides, look at it from the faculty’s perspective. The higher the demand for sociology (etc.) degrees, the higher the demand for sociology (etc.) professors!”

In reality, as her generation dies, or goes off to the Muskokas to live out the rest of their days belittling passion and youth, teaching jobs in those so-called “soft” fields are opening up. Is there one for every psych major? No, of course not. Some psychology majors become the Quebec Minister of Education, like Line Beauchamp (BA, Psychology, Université de Montréal, 1985).

I don’t know how much of her psych degree Ms. Beauchamp used during her employed days, just as I’m not entirely sure how much of her English MA Wente uses during her day. But I do know, and what is left out of arguments like Wente’s, is that university is not simply the skills acquired in the classroom, but also those acquired by being a part of the university community, locally, nationally, and internationally. While I was getting my MA I published two books, was the director of a successful international non-profit, curated a popular reading series, served as the managing editor of a magazine, edited two students’ creative theses, wrote a thesis, TAed a literature class, edited two books, and destroyed three promising relationships in just three years. While my MA proper may not have adequately prepared me for the job market, the peripheral accomplishments (and failings) of that time in my life certainly did. And I am not a unique case, in fact far from it. MA students do not simply bury themselves in Foucault and marking papers for underworked and overtired tenured profs. They are ambitious sorts, many preparing themselves for PhD programs, involved in more activities and initiatives than a Wente could possibly imagine. Oh, and this in addition to their part- and full-time jobs they manage in addition to the rest of it. It may not operate on the 10am to 3pm/3-day-a-week schedule that keeps Wente rich in poorly constructed satire, but the university life is a tireless construction of endless responsibilities and commitments.

Where Wente makes a valid point, and it pains me to no end to write that, is in her contention that universities don’t adequately prepare students for life after university. That’s why so many of us take so long to leave our institutions, why we stayed to do MAs and PhDs. Not just to better ourselves, which we did, but also because the job market within the university community is better than the one outside of it. The “real world”, the one Wente lives in, tends to be lacking in the types of relationships fostered during university, as well as the work and experiences available through university connected programs and projects. And, of course, you don’t have to pay off your student loan until you’ve left school.

Wente continues: “Degree inflation is good for universities, which desperately need bums in seats.” Yes, exactly, but Wente treats the notion of staying in university as a bad thing. As noted above, universities are a place of intuition and possibility, and are fueled not by the efforts of its administrations and faculties, but rather on the tireless ambition of its students. And if eager students are restricted access to these important institutions, whether by way of prohibitive tuition or the fear of crippling debt on the other side of a degree, then these institutions will fall.

In times of economic downturn, people return to school to upgrade their skills. Universities are recession proof. There will always be people eager to learn, and if not parents eager to get 18-year-olds out of their houses. So if any economic climate is good for universities and colleges, and their demographic is constantly replenishing, then why are the universities themselves being left out of the conversation? If the op-ed columnists are so willing to scold the children for wanting their personal spending under control, than why aren’t we scolding universities for their spending deficiencies? The government doesn’t strictly subsidize the students directly, they subsidize the universities who in turn skim a little (or a lot) off the top and then pass the buck. If we’re willing to ask for control of healthcare, why not control of post-secondary subsidies? And why is this argument not held nationally, where student debt is just as much of issue?

As with McGuinty’s plea for a united national front within the discussion of healthcare, the demands of Quebec’s students should be seen not as a Quebec conversation, but a national one. There’s an inherent, and some might argue criminal, flaw in the system that no one seems to be willing to acknowledge, and it’s a flaw that is not unique to Quebec. The rest of Canada should be more concerned with how that flaw affects them as opposed to how Quebec students are paying “tuition below the national average”, a line so tired and lazily employed throughout this argument in newspapers, social media feeds, and water cooler conversations it’s as if it is the only argument the pundits have. And it’s not good enough.