Paul Greene investigates how the longest student movement in history has claimed their  momentous victory over the liberal government of Quebec and asks what next for the student movement?

The largest student strike in history has seen a popular, large scale mobilisation of the masses in Québec in response to the Liberal government’s plans to increase tuition in the region by 75% over five years.

The response to the strikers – who were dismissed by the government as ‘troublemakers’ who don’t pay their fair share – failed dramatically. It is testament to the determination of the student movement that they have scored such a significant victory. A victory scored not just against an unfair tuition hike, but against the neoliberal educational reform which is menacing universities and colleges around the world.

I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon in Montréal in August with Ludvig Moquin-Beaudry and Jérémie Bédard-Wien, Communications Secretary and Finance Secretary/interim English Spokesperson for the CLASSE (Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante), respectively (pictured). The CLASSE are a temporary national students movement representing over 76,000 of the striking students. The leaders of the CLASSE shed light on their struggle as an intricately organised and passionate movement. They are defiant against the kind of policies which limit university access to the masses, and this goes way beyond tuition fees.

Protests and elections

Our meeting took place in a small cafe in central Montréal, where all you had to do was look around to see those dining or passing by wearing the iconic red square and pin, in solidarity with the striking students. It was a particularly tense time for the two representatives whose phones would buzz each minute from reporters and news of students, who were voting in their thousands at the pre-university preparatory colleges (known as CEGEP’s). Although receiving funded education at this stage, they have been on strike for some time in solidarity with university federations and movements.

As I was arriving almost on the eve of an election, I wanted to find out the impact that the student movement may have on the 2012 Québec general election on 4 September and the impact of that election on fees, debt and the draconian Bill 78 brought in to quash the strikes. This was a new law passed by the liberal government which forced human rights lawyers and Amnesty International, among others, out on to the streets in solidarity with the students.

The law effectively forbids gatherings of over 50 people, can alter any planned demonstration and bans picket lines. The measures inflict such high  financial penalties on students’ associations in a single day that it amounts to the loss of an entire semester’s funding every time the rules are broken.

Jérémie was keen to get across the point that a win for the Charest liberal government would offer perceived legitimacy, in the governments view, of the continued refusal to negotiate and police-state-like repression of the strikes, while the main opposition – Parti Québécois (P.Q) – promised to scrap the hike, freeze tuition and end the madness of the ruthless Bill 78, now known as Law 12.

The student leaders also made it clear that the CLASSE were not formed to be “stakeholders” in an election, as they put it, but rather as a strike-time coalition to represent students. At the same time:

“We want the Québec population to reflect on progressive ideas, on tuition, education and society, rather than continue to be swept away by superficial promises of one government after another”.

The CLASSE also produced a manifesto to express these ideas.

That day saw all major CEGEP’s tactically vote for a return to university, putting their faith in the election which would see the Jean Charest led government ousted and Parti Québécois freeze tuition levels, although they did vote to continue the strike at significant dates of mass demonstration. This wasn’t the result that our friends at the CLASSE really wanted to hear, but found it inevitable.

Although the mood was sombre, a prediction from Jérémie was that “this (the strike and movement) will not stop and we will impact the election results. The P.Q. (the main opposition) has been forced to take a progressive stance on tuition and they will surely be elected”.

This point that Jérémie made was that the P.Q. (who have since won the election and formed a minority administration in Québec) have been forced into a progressive stance by the mass movement. This is of great significance, as the party in question is among those with a neoliberal view of education who have threatened to raise fees in the region before.

Defeat for the government

The political corner in which the previous government had tried to frame the striking students had failed. This is not all: a mainstream party was also forced in to a progressive stance by the masses, which undoubtedly led to the demise of the ruling party and the resignation of the once-defiant Premier.

This election was framed by the previous government as a choice of a further tuition hike (with legitimised repression of the voice of their own youth) against the option of scrapping the hike and the oppressive tactics that came with it. Needless to say the latter has been won by the masses and the victory will be felt by all levels of society. The oppressive liberal government has been defeated by the sheer determination of Québécois to a non-corporate, public-owned vision of the educational system which is embedded in the long democratic history of the student movement.

The weird and wonderful tabloids and commentators who had previously branded the students as agitators who won’t pay their fair share, they will now likely sing the praises of a determined movement that has rejected their governments attack on education. However, the students must not become complacent.

The P.Q. still have to live up to their promises of freezing tuition, not indexing it or coming up with another wonderful experiment based on raising money, and they must also bring an end to Bill 78. The CLASSE were very clear on this during our meeting, no matter the outcome of the election.

The two determined student leaders I met that day also made it apparent that freezing tuition fees at an arbitrary level is one thing but it is a small step forward to mounting an offensive campaign for free education – and the continuing battle against the continuous privatisation of universities.

A global struggle

When asked what those of us in the U.K. could do in solidarity with the students movement in Québec, Jérémie first wanted to take a step back and thank students in Scotland and in the rest of the U.K. for the humbling solidarity shown and to emphasise the importance of solidarity. His answer however, was simple – “Mount a global assault on neoliberal educational policies”.

Although, for now at least, while Scottish students can benefit from free education, some internationals (or those currently not under threat from deportation), are having to pay huge sums of money to study at our universities while English students’ fees are at the highest level ever. Our educational institutions are forever selling research to suit the needs of private companies.

The commercialisation of universities and colleges in this country continues. It must be resisted now by students across the country, and across the world, on a mass scale before it spirals further out of control.

The main thing that struck me as I was taken to a meeting of around 2,000 students at a preparatory colleges, or ‘CEGEP’, was the spirit and solidarity that exists amongst the student body. Thousands of students coming out to vote during their summer holidays branding flags and pins as passing drivers stopped to toot horns and wave red flags in support of their popular movement. (This picture shows students waiting to get into a meeting.)

As for the election, the Québec student movement will quite rightly celebrate a hard fought victory that defeated a government. However, they know there is still a long way to go. The movement will continue until free education returns to the province, and until universities stop functioning like corporations run by a management obsessed with financial results and start running like institutions dedicated to advancing the knowledge and understanding of its people – all of its people.

The leaders of the CLASSE described the fee hike as the tip of the iceberg for students, as consciousness of the neoliberal assault on universities increased since the students voted to strike. The determination of the movement in Québec has proved that these policies can be resisted, and they have proved that mobilisation on a mass scale works if the message is clear and the fight back is consistent. (Picture inside a student gathering in Montreal.)

Let’s be clear though. One or two demos wasn’t the answer in Québec to get this far and that won’t be enough to bring the fight to a global level, or to convince the UK government to double back on their fee hike. At the same time, nor will a mass global movement be built overnight.

But already much can be learned from their struggle, and not just the strike that’s been going these past six months or so. A sustainable movement has to be continually fighting for students. We need to fight for a publicly owned, fair and funded university education for all.

We must build unity and solidarity at a global level to fight neoliberal policies, or to quote the CLASSE manifesto; “We are many youth, but with one struggle!”.

Paul Greene is Vice-President for Environment & Ethics at Robert Gordon University Students Association, Aberdeen.

From International Socialist Group site.