Lessons for Australia from the victorious Quebec student strike
Something very interesting happened in Quebec. Students fought back against neoliberalism and won.
There are lessons from the magnificent and victorious Quebec student strike for the whole higher education sector in Australia.
The message is simple. If you don’t fight, you lose. If you do fight, you can win.
In Quebec, the Liberal Government of Jean Charest fell at the recent elections after ten years in power. The Parti Quebecois won the most seats but not a majority and will form a minority Government.
As Richard Fidler warns in the comments section this could mean that the now Opposition parties who introduced and voted for the fee increases and criminalising dissent might vote against the PQ’s reforms and thus defeat them, but at this stage the social and political momentum is with the students and the Government to go ahead. It would take a very brave group of Oppositon parties to oppose the changes. They would risk both refuelling the anger and strike at a higher stage and their own political futures, I would have thought. Fidler’s initial balance sheet of the Quebec election gives cause to pause in our celebrations.
In large part the Charest Government was defeated by a mass democratic protest and campaign by students against university fee increases.
Last semester around 150,000 students in Quebec struck, protested and picketed, effectively closing down many of the province’s Universities indefinitely.
When the Charest Government criminalised the students’ actions, 300,000 Quebecois illegally protested against the Government and for students.
The Parti Quebecois has promised to scrap the fee increases. It will repeal the Bill making protest action illegal.
The students have won.
They won by taking mass, democratic action on the streets and in their Universities.
Here in Canberra we have two neoliberal Vice-Chancellors chaffing at the bit to attack their staff and students. The School of Music debacle at the Australian National University is a foretaste of the future of higher education in Canberra.
We students and staff at the ANU and the wider community did not really fight to defend the School of Music and the 13 of 32 jobs under threat. There were no sit-ins, no pickets, no ‘illegal’ stop work meetings to close down the University in defence of the School and the idea of education as a public good. As a consequence we lost.
Could we have won? Over 1000 people turned up to show community support for the School. 350 staff and students marched on the Chancelry a few weeks earlier. Some of us at least could have been mobilised to picket the entrances to the ANU and shut it down. Students could have occupied a significant University centre. Staff could have gone on strike. We didn’t. We lost.
Imagine what the current ACT election would be like if University students and staff were occupying and picketing. The issue of the School of Music specifically and the neoliberalisation of higher education more generally would be at the forefront of the election debate.
The Greens, and maybe even the slow moving, do little ACT Labor Party, would have developed real policies to try and address the issues favourably for staff and students and to defend higher education from the educational barbarians in charge of the two main universities here.
In all likelihood an emboldened ANU Vice-Chancellor will now, or soon, turn to his previous target, the 150 jobs he wants to get rid of to make the ANU even more profitable. But if profit is your only guide, why stop at 150?
On top of that the Vice-Chancellor’s sudden interest in student evaluation results means these may become mechanisms to pressure some academics – generally those who hold old fashioned ideas about critical thinking and education as a public good – to leave.
Credentialism has hit the ANU. The ‘apply for your jobs’ advertisements at the ANU School of Music require staff with doctorates. Many internationally renowned and recognised musicians and teachers do not have PhDs.
This pox has infected the University of Canberra so much that in the last hiring round the Law School appointed a number of staff, all of whom had PhDs. None have a PhD in law.
What better way to train people to teach broad subjects and deal with hundreds of whingeing students who just want a piece of paper after 4 years of spoon feeding than to lock someone away for 3 years examining an obscure and very specific topic?
The next round of attacks on staff and students at the ANU and the University of Canberra will occur soon enough. Bargaining over the Enterprise Agreements at both Universities is under way.
At the University of Canberra Professor Stephen Parker, the sun king Vice-Chancellor, has already imposed his own brand of neoliberalism on the University. He has over the years cut staff numbers and outsourced some functions. He over-enrolled students without increasing staff numbers. In addition his assistant professor scheme, which began in 2009, has introduced a level of precarity in employment at universities that other Vice-Chancellors can only wet dream about.
These contracts mean that staff have 7 years (reviewable typically after 3 and 5 years) to show they are Associate Professor material. This will be very hard to do.
One Dean at UC commented recently that of the current 176 academic staff on Assistant Professorship contracts, about 20 would be employed as Associate Professors after 7 years. For the other 150 or so all that stress, working very long hours, churning out unread journal articles, treating the large number of abusive, lazy and ignorant students with a smile and respect, sucking up to what laughingly passes for leadership in many of the Faculties, all of that will have been for nothing.
If there has been one characteristic of academic life over the last few decades in Australia apart from the incessant attacks on staff it has been acquiescence to the neoliberalisation of the Universities. Staff and their unions, and students, have accepted neoliberal assault after neoliberal assault with misguided views about reason and rational discussion.
Arguably union leaders have been handmaidens to this educational rape and pillage.
The time has come to say enough is enough and to defend higher education from the Vandals at the gate and the Visigoths in the distance.
The ANU School of Music defeat shows us that if you don’t fight you lose. Quebec shows us that if you do fight you can win.
Readers might also like to look at an interview I did with Guillaume Legault, one of the leaders of the Quebec student strike when he was in Canberra in late July.
John is a graduate teaching fellow and Ph D student at the ANU and from October will be a member of the Branch Committee of the National Tertiary Education Union there. He taught tax law at the University of Canberra in 2010 and 2011.