I wrote this introductory note on the racist, sexist and classist nature of the tuition fee debate (thus the Quebec Student Movement) for TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies
Brought up in a low-income family, I struggled throughout my youth in India, and in my adult life in Quebec, as I strove to access quality education. As a woman of colour, I faced further challenges in my professional life in Quebec. I was lucky enough to be able to go back to university for a Master’s degree, during which time I realized how the vicious circle of coming from an under-priviledged background comes into play. High grades are needed to access higher education, but people from low-income families (with racial and gender barriers amplifying the challenges) need to work more than others to make ends meet and pay for their education, and thus do not end up getting good grades. The high price tag and higher debt associated with post-secondary education further deters the same people from attending universities.
The sexist, racist and classist dynamic I faced in my personal journey emerged again through the proposed tuition hike in Quebec. Studies by government-funded commissions, researchers and others confirmed that between 7,000 and 50,000 people would not be able to access university education as a result of the proposed 75 per cent tuition-fee hike over the next five years (Martin and Tremblay-Pepin 2011; Graduate Students Association). The system of loans and bursaries in Quebec, often referred to by the government as the solution, is a very limited solution
if it is one at all, and excludes a large portion of students who need assistance.
In the current system, access to higher education is closely tied to one’s wealth, and the proposed hike would make that connection even more drastic. Moreover, women and people of colour bear a heavier burden. For instance, women earn seventy cents to every dollar earned by men (Simone de Beauvoir Institute 2011), and racialized or “visible minority” university graduates in Quebec earn a third less than their counterparts (Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse Québec 2011), making the loan option even more discouraging.
Increasing tuition fees is a regressive measure, which places a higher burden on the less privileged. Students are conscious of this discriminatory structure, which is why we demand that any extra funds needed for the education system be funded through progressive taxes, rather than through individual user fees. CLASSE, the leading provincial student group during the strike, is against any tuition-fee hike,
and is working toward free education: ultimately, we’d like education to be funded entirely through progressive taxes. Like CLASSE, I believe that education should be considered a social good and not an individual investment, and should be accessible to everyone, not only to those who can afford to pay for it.
Tuition fees are a regressive measure, because the same amount of fees are applicable to everyone irrespective of their financial capacity, which reproduces social inequalities. Progressive taxes, however, allow for a fairer system, where those earning higher incomes pay a higher percentage in taxes, resulting in a better redistribution of wealth. With a regressive tuition-fee hike, people from less privileged backgrounds are left to choose between high debt, discontinuing their higher education or not considering higher education at all.
Free and emancipatory education, accessible to all, is a precondition for a fairer society. Thus, fighting for good quality and free public education would, to a considerable extent, also mean fighting to overcome classism, sexism and racism in education and society as a whole.
Rushdia Mehreen is a Master’s candidate in the Department of Geography Planning and Environment at Concordia University, and a member of the Social Struggles Committee of ASSÉ/CLASSE (Association pour un solidarité syndicate étudiante/coalition large de l’ASSÉ.