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Behind the picket line: Accessible education requires a concrete action plan

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Today’s university graduates are suffocating under record-high student debt. A 2015 survey by the Canadian University Survey Consortium indicates that approximately 50 per cent of graduating students have debt and carry an average of $26,819 in tuition debt. Debt delays or impedes important life milestones, such as buying a home, and can take a significant toll on students’ mental health. Given the adverse impacts of rising student debt, it’s no wonder that the prospect of free education is enticing to current undergrads.

On March 26, SSMU members passed a motion at the Winter General Assembly (GA) mandating the Vice-President (VP) External to organize a campaign for free education across Canada and the cancellation of student debt. Proposed by the Socialist Fightback student group, part of this campaign includes mobilizing a one-day student strike in the Fall 2018 semester. Quebec student unions have a history of successfully pressuring the provincial government on tuition, and this campaign has similar potential to incite real change.

Because the GA didn’t meet quorum, SSMU Legislative Council subsequently accepted the Motion to Organize the Fight for Free Education and Cancellation of Student Debt at its March 29 meeting, after amending it to include a timeline. Looking forward over the next few months, it is crucial that SSMU conducts adequate research to determine how to properly lobby the government for such a revolutionary change, and do the leg-work necessary to see this broad-reaching mandate become an effective student campaign.

The resolution acknowledges SSMU’s historical role in fighting against tuition increases, and references a 2015 policy that commits SSMU to supporting universally accessible post-secondary education. It also acknowledges Quebec’s tradition of student activism, alluding to the infamous 2012 “Maple Spring” protests that mobilized over 250,000 students against the provincial Liberal Party’s proposed tuition hike. In the same spirit, the GA motion voices student frustration over “the lack of accessibility of education” and “skyrocketing tuition fees.” According to Statistics Canada, the average Canadian undergraduate tuition has risen 40 per cent in the past 10 years. It is within this context, and in solidarity with universities across Canada, that SSMU aims to mobilize students for the one-day strike and champion a long-term accessible education campaign.

A one-day strike won’t bring about free university overnight. But, if executed effectively, it could raise awareness on the increasing financial burden of post-secondary education for students, and encourage McGill and the provincial government to reconsider Quebec’s tuition rates.

Notably missing from the campaign, however, is current research and information on viable paths toward more accessible—and potentially free—post-secondary education in Quebec, and how free tuition would impact other important aspects of student life, such as quality of education and enrolment. The lack of a concrete action plan risks hindering the movement’s goals. Free university tuition is certainly attractive, and it’s proven to be feasible—as students in countries such as Norway, Germany, and Finland benefit from it. Still, Quebec and McGill present their own unique challenges.

Closer to home, the 2012 strikes’ success at freezing tuition hikes is a testament to the impact that effective student mobilization can have on the accessibility of education. However, further progress on the pricetag of university education in Quebec will undoubtedly require significant adjustment in the public university funding structure. If SSMU wishes to see its bold vision materialize, it must consider its financial aspects as well. Additionally, to attract the provincial attention necessary to enact substantial change, collaboration with other student unions in the province is essential. In moving forward with its campaign for free education, it is crucial for SSMU and its members to conduct research and strategize about how they would wish to see free tuition implemented. At all stages, students themselves must be continually consulted as stakeholders in the process.

Given the preliminary nature of the motion, as a measure to gauge student support, the lack of research included with it is understandable; however, if students wish to see real impact, concrete plans for change must follow. A one-day strike won’t bring about free university overnight. But, if executed effectively, it could raise awareness on the increasing financial burden of post-secondary education for students, and encourage McGill and the provincial government to reconsider Quebec’s tuition rates.

The VP External must also mobilize McGill students, both on the strike, and on the broader campaign for more financially accessible education that the resolution proposes. Substantial change does not happen from one strike in one semester, or in one year, as even the most prominent student activist groups on campus can attest. For this campaign to have the same longevity and impact as causes like Divest McGill or Demilitarize McGill, it must hit the ground running, and then keep running.

SSMU is right to stand behind accessible education and campaign against student debt. While the strike is set to only last one day, it should generate further conversation about the accessibility of education in Quebec and Canada more broadly. As Quebec students have proven, when it comes to fighting for affordable education, they aren’t quick to back down.

 

A previous version of this editorial incorrectly stated that the Motion to Organize the Fight for Free Education and Cancellation of Student Debt was pending an online student vote. Legislative Council passed an amended version of the resolution on March 29.  The Tribune regrets this error.

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