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Daniel Cohn-Bendit, student leader during the May ‘68 uprisings in France
June 7, 2012
In Quebec, the students rebel against universities being treated like private businesses.
To understand what’s currently playing out in Quebec, ‘68 must first be forgotten, or at least the date must be relieved of the paradigmatic value that it’s been saddled with. Of course, there are a few similarities between the two events: same fresh faces and joyful spontaneity of processions, same political inventiveness and, finally, same unrest in a large part of society…
But the parallels stop there. Because, at its base, the student condition today is, in Europe and in America, quite different from that of yesterday. In 1968, those who reached higher education were still a small minority: they formed a sort of elite who, no matter which course of study they followed, were assured a valued full time job. Nothing to do with the market anxiety and the precarious risk that presently weighs on each student. Much more numerous and in permanent competition in the job market, the majority of today’s students hope to complete professional degrees. To complete these new missions, universities need increased means, and they struggle to find them within very indebted states.
To finance their studies, a number of youth are obliged to have a job, to call on familial support or to take out loans. And that is where the question of enrollment fees becomes crucial. If they represent only a secondary part of the total costs borne by those who study, they constitute no less of an additional barrier to their possibility of reaching higher education.
In Quebec like Great Britain in the fall of 2010, this is the origin of the student crisis. To rid their national budget of the cost represented by a quality democratic education, the governments launch into neoliberal doxa, according to which the university must be remodeled on an entrepreneurial foundation where the famous user-payer principle is applied to students and where the university is put directly at the service of private businesses. This approach is evidently very regrettable for comprehensive knowledge and produces negative externalities for the long term. If the demand to produce more programs offering professional opportunities to students is legitimate, it can, however, only become the alpha and omega of tomorrow’s universities. They must also be a place for proliferation of knowledge and instruments of social justice.
The current governments would do well to reread the works of philosopher John Rawls on the subject. For Rawls, the education system embodies the principle of equal opportunity itself, and it’s under this heading that university must be considered an institution that serves the common good. Education is not a luxury product reserved for those who can buy it and only follow their personal career interests.
Because in this time of famine new resources for universities must be found, I suggest that we overturn the famous neoliberal user-payer principle by asking the following question: who really benefits today from a university that produces a highly qualified workforce at a good price, because of large unemployment among the youth, if not the businesses who recruit them?! The state and the students contribute to the financing of higher studies… Why don’t the businesses that recruit a duly trained graduate pay the graduate’s share to the establishments that qualified him or her, like is already the case when they divert a student from public service to the private sector.
Translated from the original French by Translating the printemps érable.
*Translating the printemps érable is a volunteer collective attempting to balance the English media’s extremely poor coverage of the student conflict in Québec by translating media that has been published in French into English. These are amateur translations; we have done our best to translate these pieces fairly and coherently, but the final texts may still leave something to be desired. If you find any important errors in any of these texts, we would be very grateful if you would share them with us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please read and distribute these texts in the spirit in which they were intended; that of solidarity and the sharing of information.