A Tale of Two Cities: Students Protests in Columbus, Ohio and Montreal, Quebec
Is student loan debt a ticking time bomb? At $870 billion dollars, the money owed on student loans in the United States now surpasses total credit balances. In Canada, the average student debt for a university graduate totals $27,000. Two million Canadians now owe around 20 billion dollars in student loans. Growing levels of student debt in both countries represents part of a larger phenomenon of governments passing off educational costs to individual students rather than funding them as part of the public good.
While part of an international trend, I’ve witnessed how much response to these tuition hikes can vary from place to place. In 2005, I moved from Montreal to Ohio to complete a master’s degree. Even then, tuition rates were rapidly expanding at Ohio’s state universities. The apathetic response to tuition hikes that I encountered among students amazed me. The reason for my surprise was because at that exact same moment in my native Quebec, over 200, 000 students had gone on strike. They had done so because the provincial government had cut loans and bursaries. Even with these cuts (which were unsuccessful due to student mobilization), Quebec tuition would still have remained about half of what it was in Ohio.
Today, the gap between the student movements in Ohio and Quebec seem just as stark. In Ohio, average costs for state residents at the main campuses of four-year universities stands at $ 9,600 a year (a 56% increase over the past decade). Ohio State, which has increased annuals charges by 72% over the past decade to $13, 081, even warns its prospective students that they should expect to pay an additional 5% to 10% every year that they attend. Three weeks ago, around 100 Ohio State students marched in protest. In contrast, three days ago in Montreal, tens of thousands of students showed up for a demonstration that spanned over 50 city blocks. They were protesting the Liberal government’s plans to raise annual in-province tuition fees from $2,500 to $4,100 over the next five years. Since mid-February, more than 300,000 students have stopped attending classes to challenge this policy.
Although many believe that college education is an investment into one’s future—which individual students should play a substantial role in paying back themselves—upon closer inspection the arguments for state tuition increases don’t sound very convincing. Increased fees deter financially disadvantaged students from applying to university, lead to worrisome debt loads for anyone whose family isn’t already well off, and neglect the obscene growth in administrative salaries at college and universities in recent years (which actually do waste money). They also tend to encourage the view that higher education is nothing but a commodity designed for individual advancement, rather than a system that promotes the common good through its original research and teaching.
In cases such as Quebec’s, the tuition increases also represent a drop in the bucket when compared with overall spending on higher education. The tuition hikes seem designed less to pay for needed expenses than to encourage the principle that individuals—rather than society as a whole—should bear the financial burden every time they use a government service. That is, in the name of austerity, they should get used to more regressive taxation.
As the size of student protests in Ohio and Quebec demonstrate, student culture matters in shaping responses to tuition increases. While the Canadian media has relentlessly reminded its readers that Quebecers pay less in tuition than anyone in Canada, they have neglected to highlight to that they also pay considerably higher income taxes in part because they expect more social equality. Since the late 1960s, Quebec students have launched a number of successful petition drives, strikes, occupations, and mass demonstrations that have helped keep costs down. This commitment to student solidarity helps explain why Quebec’s student debt load is by the far the lowest out of all of Canada. In Ohio, on the other hand, not only do you find a political culture that places less of a premium on social equality, but you also have a complex system of higher education that makes organizing protests much more difficult.
Culture and institutions, of course, are malleable. Many in Quebec support increased tuition fees. Its student movement may very well fail to stop the current government’s agenda (as was recently the case in London). At the same time, they might help inspire others. My own, admittedly utopian, hope is that the activism in Quebec encourages students in places like Ohio (just as the negligible tuition fees in places like Norway and the Netherlands have motivated many in Quebec). As universities around the world consider abandoning their missions of serving the common good for the promise of neo-liberal economic efficiencies, the response should ideally be international as well. Indeed, many in the Occupy Movement have turned crushing levels of student debt into an organizing issue. While I like seeing 100, 000 people marching against tuition increases in Montreal (or London), it would be a great thing to see in Columbus, Ohio too.