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Editorial: Response to university budget shortfalls reflects lack of imagination

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On Oct. 27, McGill hosted a ‘town hall’ event to present its side of the renewed budget cuts it is making by order of Quebec’s provincial government, to the tune of 13 to 15 million dollars.
These cuts come on top of downward adjustments made to McGill’s budget last year and the year before. In response to these provincial ‘austerity’ cuts, over 10,000 people from both student associations and provincial unions gathered to protest last Friday. The response on campus to these reductions has been muted. it has almost been as if there is a grim resignation to fewer resources for Teaching Assistants (TAs), fewer classes, and reduced opportunities to hire tenure-track professors.

Compared to the sustained organizing for various strikes and class-disrupting actions during the 2011-12 school year, this most recent set of cuts has been met with lukewarm motions at Post Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) and  Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) General Assemblies (GAs), neither of which contained any real organizing actions. This isn’t to say that the tactics or protests then were reasonable, but to rather note that the attitude around dealing with tuition hikes was far more frenzied than the desire to respond to the continued chipping away of funds and shifting of costs to students that is actually happening. This comes even though budget cuts and increases in user fees are simply the other side of the tuition and cost equation. Presuming no new revenue, to cover a shortfall, cuts must be made.

Another issue that this latest controversy raises is the degree to which the provincial parties can be taken seriously on issues of higher education to begin with. In the last election, many McGill students believed that the Parti Quebecois (PQ) was best removed from its legislative majority, partly because of its use of the Charter of Values as a wedge issue, but also because of its duplicity on student issues. First the PQ opposed the Charest government’s tuition hikes, then instituted the first wave of major cuts to university budgets, then announced a tuition hike too small to actually remedy the funding situation, but large enough to demonstrate a lack of respect for the intelligence of a key member of the electoral coalition that gave itself power in the first place. With the Couillard Liberal government, we are seeing similar problems. Even during the election, it was clear that student issues were neglected, but there was enough of an exasperation with the antics of the PQ that it wasn’t a defining issue in the discourse on campus about the election. Now, we are seeing the dubious result of this disconnect. Student votes are not necessarily influential enough to drive the party agendas beyond polling day in this province, and that leaves all of us in a bind.

It’s difficult to see where advocacy efforts should be focused, considering the previous failures along the way. SSMU’s previous membership in the Table de Concertation Étudiante du Québec (TaCEQ)—a fledgling association of student associations designed to lobby at the provincial level that lacked focus and was beset by infighting—proved largely useless. Joining a student association for political weight was the right idea,  but the organization lacked clout. Should SSMU join another group? It could set itself up for the same problems. Lobbying at the provincial level, while much harder, and with less potential for impact than lobbying at the McGill administrative level, is essential when it comes to the question of budgets, because McGill only gets a certain amount of free reign on its allocations. It is imperative that the SSMU executives this year, and in future years, can strike that balance.

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