Last week, the Students' Society of McGill University (SSMU) hosted a number of workshops and discussions to encourage awareness about Quebec’s austerity measures. Anti-Austerity Week at McGill took a strong stance against continuing university budget cuts while aiming to inform students and the public of what austerity means for them: lower quality of services, higher eventual user fees, a growing wealth disparity in the community, and less support on campus. But despite its merits, Anti-Austerity Week went by relatively unnoticed.
As a youth employment counsellor, I have seen austerity cuts destroy programs aimed to support at-risk populations. As a student, I have heard the rumblings of how these measures will diminish Student Services—through cuts to “non-essential services” such as the Arts Internship program. Sometimes it can be difficult to draw the link between the services that are being lost and the austerity policies behind those cutbacks. Therefore, students may not realize that they are feeling the squeeze of austerity, and as a result might not take action against it. It is imperative that students become educated about this economic policy, and come to understand the broader scope of what is at stake.
It is vital for students to understand the scope of these cuts, as it will impact the variety of services and support available to future generations of students. Anti-Austerity week aimed to make such knowledge accessible, but these efforts must be continued and expanded throughout the semester. Inclusive social media outreach is an important way to reach more people through students’ social networks. Tapping into the outreach power of student leaders on campus is also vital, and creating information booths could help to inform and empower students to push for greater social change.
Austerity is not an easy thing to mobilize against. When threatened with rising tuition, students mobilize swiftly; but the movement against austerity has been far less unified. This is in part because austerity is a vague and poorly understood economic policy; its effects are far-reaching but not necessarily immediately visible to the general population. Although many people will bear the brunt of cost-cutting measures, it will be felt individually as a small but steady increase in prices and fees paired with wage freezes or salary increases below the inflation rate.
While large-scale protests last spring made the issue visible, the spotlight did not translate into increased understanding of austerity and its impacts. It is important for students to remain informed and politically active in order to preserve the essential social, educational, and health care systems that support us all as members of this community. Uninformed and unorganized protests are not enough. The SSMU and students involved should be applauded for beginning this wave by standing up for social justice and their rights as citizens of this province through their hosting of Anti-Austerity Week, but McGill’s student body must do much more to become educated about the threat that austerity measures pose to their futures and engage with efforts to combat the cuts.