Of all the reactions to the recently announced tuition hikes for out-of-province students studying in Quebec universities, perhaps the most disappointing has been the one from Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the co-spokesperson of Québec solidaire. In response to François Legault’s plan — to nearly double the tuition for students coming from outside Quebec and then transfer that money to the province’s French universities — Nadeau-Dubois said, “It’s a bad solution to a real problem. Clearly there is an imbalance between the funding of anglophone and francophone universities. We need to solve that problem, but raising tuition fees is not the right solution.” Nadeau-Dubois has indicated that his party will come up with its own solution to the problem. It has yet to do so.
Nadeau-Dubois’s relatively muted response is a little surprising. One might have thought that he would be leading the fight against the government’s plan. After all, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois burst into the public’s consciousness in the spring of 2012 when he emerged as one of the public faces of the student protests against then-premier Jean Charest’s plan to raise tuition by 75% over five years. The protests, which would come to be known as the Maple Spring, started in February of that year and would spread to universities and CEGEPs across the province. Over the next several months, hundreds of thousands of students would walk out of their classes and march through the streets to demand that the government cancel the increases.
At the time, Nadeau-Dubois (a UQAM student) turned the issue of a tuition increase into a larger question of the role of public institutions in a democratic society. In protesting the planned hikes, Nadeau-Dubois was taking a stand against what he described as neoliberal austerity measures that he said were were transforming public education — which should be treated as a public good — into a private service to be paid for by students, who are being turned into consumers.
Nadeau-Dubois would also hail the protest as a symbol of the type of social solidarity that the government attempted to undermine with its planned tuition hikes. Arguing that the tuition hikes represented a fundamental break from the idea of education that took hold in the 1960s, when control over education shifted from the church, which had used its power to limit access to education, to the state, which pursued a more democratic approach that strove to make education accessible to everyone.
Charest believed that he had the public on his side and so attempted to ignore the student protests. When this did not work, he passed laws designed to restrict the students’ ability to protest or to disrupt classes. But the protests continued, and even gained support as the months passed. When Charest called an election that summer, his government would be defeated by the Parti Québécois, which had promised to reverse the increases.
Even though the PQ would introduce its own more modest tuition increases, the student protests were an enormous success. They showed that students were thinking about more than just their own self-interest and that that they had clear ideas about the type of society they wished to live in. It showed what might be accomplished if a society embraced solidarity and refused to engage in the type of divisions that governments hope will keep populations unable to oppose their policies. And in this case, it showed that the students could bring down a government.
Nadeau-Dubois would step down as leader that summer and he would tour the country promoting his message of solidarity as well as his vision for a public education system that served the needs of the community rather than those of the marketplace. He would write a book, part memoir and part history of the movement, that would win the Governor General’s Award.
And so, when François Legault announced that he would nearly double tuition for tens of thousands of students attending university in Quebec, it was surprising that the most Nadeau-Dubois could come up with was a restrained call for the government to reconsider.
It seems like this latest tuition hike challenges everything that Nadeau-Dubois had once stood for. By targeting only some students for this increase, Legault is attempting to undermine the very solidarity that Nadeau-Dubois had once promoted as key to democracy. And by suggesting that it is not up to the government of Quebec to subsidize the education of students from outside the province, is Legault not taking direct aim at the concept of publicly-funded education and promoting the idea that education should be seen as a product to be purchased by the consumer just like they would purchase any product?
Has Nadeau-Dubois changed his mind on the issue? Does he believe that low tuition is something that should be reserved for Quebec residents? If so, how does this fit into his views on solidarity, which were, after all, at least as important to him as the tuition issue itself? What about the thousands of students who marched in the streets during the Maple Spring? Where are they now?
Interestingly, there has been more pushback against the tuition increases from the province’s business and university leaders than there has been from the former leaders of the Maple Spring. The heads of the Université du Québec system, meanwhile, have come out in support of the increases. There has been more of a pushback from the very constituencies that a decade ago would have supported the Charest increases than there has been from Nadeau-Dubois himself.
Perhaps Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois has changed since he entered politics. Perhaps he no longer believes that education should be accessible and free to all, as he claimed in 2012. Or maybe he never really believed any of that. Maybe he meant at the time that it should only be accessible and free for some students.
But if this is the case, then maybe he should go back to read that part of his book where he writes that it “requires a good deal of courage and imagination of the sort displayed by young people in the spring of 2012” to create the type of society he had championed during the Maple Spring. Perhaps it is time for him to find some of that courage and imagination in his own response to this latest attempt by a government to dramatically increase tuition fees. ■
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