On April 7, Quebec will go to the polls to elect a new government. The campaign has been marked by claims and counterclaims of voter suppression, voter fraud, duplicity, and an overall tone of nastiness. What it hasn’t been marked by is attention to issues relating to university students.
That said, this editorial is not a lament that this election isn’t about student issues. With a semi-credible threat of another sovereignty referendum in the event of a majority government by the Parti Québécois (PQ), it is understandable that other issues have taken a backseat in this election cycle. What makes this shift particularly notable, however, is that the last provincial election in 2012 revolved around a “student issue”—tuition fee increases proposed by the previous Jean Charest Liberal government. Those increases—seemingly substituted with punishing cutbacks to the budget for higher education funding—are now history, as is any discussion of university education. The only university students that have appeared in this cycle have been, paradoxically, out of province students, part of an attempt by elements in the PQ to revive the idea that nefarious outsiders are trying to usurp the electoral process.
With all of that said, here are a clear set of issues that students should look to come election day. The first of these is the proposed Charter of Values, which would ban public sector employees from wearing large religious symbols, and has lingered as one of the biggest political stories in the province since it was first officially proposed last Fall. While the charter is a broad issue, its effects specifically on universities, such as restrictions on the ability of professors of certain faiths to gain employment, as well as the potential for increased stigmatization and discrimination against students of the Muslim, Sikh, and Jewish faiths, are of particular importance
As critical as the charter is in any fair evaluation of the PQ’s handiwork over the past year and a half, just as important is remembering the party’s reversal on university funding. While the original tuition fee increases proposed by the Liberal Party were rescinded, the government followed that up with punishing cuts to university funding—felt especially hard at McGill—that were, at best, equivalent to if not worse than tuition increases, in terms of their effect on students. Course cuts and library closures have marked the past year at this university, and much of the blame lies with the provincial government. A useless summit on higher education and the enactment of indexed tuition increases too small to actually undo the budget cut damage did not help. On the issue that brought them to power in the first place, empowering and improving university students, the PQ have come up far too short.
One last student issue that has been under the radar is the PQ’s reduction in the tuition tax credit for students. The adjustment, which cuts the tax credit from 20 per cent to eight per cent, was actually supported by some student unions, and there is a public policy case to be made that tax credits are a highly inefficient means of assistance to most groups.
However, the relative lack of coverage of the change only goes to underscore the low profile student issues have had this campaign, and the responsibility of voters to inform themselves when exercising their vote next week. A healthy dose of skepticism aside, there are real differences between the parties, and whatever choice is made next week will have real, tangible effects for students. Presuming eligibility, to abstain would be unfair, and to vote without informing one’s self would be irresponsible.