Last December, we saw a very different side of the Parti Québecois and the students that helped vote it into office than we came to know in 2012. Elected on the shoulders of the student movement, and a recent advocate of accessible education, the PQ struck a major blow against the same issues it once stood for with its plan to cut $124 million in university funding. The students, meanwhile, have watched this happen with little coherent response. The Tribune decries the government’s evasive and dishonest behaviour, and urges students and administration to come together in opposition.
This move represents a sudden departure from the government’s stated priorities. Its new budget, released on Nov 20, bore no mention of any cuts, only championing the end of the tuition hikes. Two weeks later, the government revealed sizable cuts without any warning to students or schools. This reversal indicates a thorough disrespect for students and student issues, as well as a willingness to use these issues for political gain. In Sept 2012, with the election on the line, and student movements engaging as relevant political actors, the PQ heralded education as a top priority. Now, with a budget blasted by opponents, and a need for fiscal responsibility, education is the first to face cuts.
As for the students, whose response to last year’s planned tuition hikes started out as a rumble and built to a roar as protest after protest took to the streets, this new development has been met with near silence. Some major student groups have spoken out against it, but no cohesive plan of action has emerged.
The student reaction was also hampered by the placement of the announcement late in the year, as most schools were in the midst of exams, or finishing up for the holidays. Especially in light of the ongoing government advocacy for accessibly education right up until the announcement, its timing should be seen as strategic. This has severely limit reaction to and discussion of the issues surrounding these cuts.
Those opposing the tuition increases cited concerns for accessibility of education. While higher tuition does make education available to fewer people, these cuts will, indirectly, have the same adverse effect. When McGill’s budget was passed last spring, under the assumption that the tuition hikes would take effect, a substantial portion of the school’s revenue from the additional tuition was to be put towards student financial aid and emergency assistance. These are the sorts of investments a school can make when it has money. Conversely, when budgets are cut, the first things to go are those which most directly impact students.
One explanation for the lack of outrage now is that the budget cuts don’t take money directly from students’ pockets in the way a tuition hike does. However, it is important to remember that the net outcome is the same. A smaller budget means that a school is able to provide fewer services and a lower calibre of education. While the amount that we are paying may not be higher, the value of what we are paying for is diminishing. Whether the cuts are reflected in student services and resources (such as advisors or Service Point), facilities, libraries, or directly to the classroom, it is once again the student who loses out.
Among the greatest differences between this and the events in the spring of 2012 surrounding the tuition hikes is that students and the administration are now aligned in their interests. These budget cuts are bad for the university community as a whole, and to see them rescinded should be a universal priority. It is the administration that is in the best position to do this. Our Board of Governors includes members who carry enormous influence both within and outside of the university. Although some of these individuals’ presence on the board has been a point of tension between students and administration, they are well-placed to advance the school’s cause. As an institution, we carry political clout. McGill can make a difference, and it is from the top that it can most efficiently effect change.
The Board has already passed a motion denouncing the budget cuts, and Principal Munroe-Blum has been vocal in her opposition to the cuts. These are a good foundation, but we need something more. We need to see a message sent to the government that education must be prioritized, and educational institutions will stand up for themselves, even if it will not. If there has ever been a time for the university to take action and speak on behalf of each and every one of its members, that time is now.