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A Whiny Strike Won't Solve Post-Secondary Woes

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On Wednesday night, in one of those sparsely-attended gatherings synonymous with campus politics, just over 1,000 interested students at Concordia University (population 30,000) took it upon themselves to declare a student strike. Mad as hell at the prospect that their yearly tuition may skyrocket (by Quebec standards) as high as $3,793 by 2017, the pencils will be down by this time next Thursday as Concordinistas take to the streets to join the tear gas party already in progress.

By my count, this will be Quebec's fourth student uprising in eight years. Significant street protests already occurred in 2005, 2007, and 2011, yet none accomplished much. Premier Jean Charest's government remains adamant that tuition rates -- currently the lowest in North America -- must increase in order to keep the province's post-secondary system economically solvent at a time when most Quebec colleges and universities are running enormous deficits.

On the one hand, it's tempting to simply conclude what much of the mainstream Anglo press already has, and dismiss this latest unrest as yet one more manifestation of a French-Canadian culture plagued by a grotesque sense of entitlement that is economically illiterate to the point of self-parody. The striking students, after all, are not merely demanding their already rock-bottom tuition rates be lowered to zero, but in some cases actually past zero as well.  According to at least one member of the Concordia Graduate Students' Union, Quebec should be striving to emulate the Scandinavian model, where universities actually pay students for the pleasure of their presence.

On the other hand, however, such sentiments are hardly a Quebec peculiarity. While a plan as self-evidently nuts as "negative tuition" may remain on the fringe elsewhere, mainstream Canadian political opinion on post-secondary education still bears far more similarities than differences with the general mindset of the strikers. The political class, after all, long ago conceded that the biggest issues facing university students are the twin dilemmas of tuition and accessibility. Listen to any higher education minister address a crowd of the under-30 set and you can literally count the seconds before they bemoan that schools still cost too much and not enough people can get in.

Thus, while tuition has been hiked across the country, governments have invariably attempted to soften the blow by creating ever more lax and generous student loan regimes in tandem. A 2008 report from the now-defunct Millenium Scholarship Foundation noted that provincial and federal financial support for students had leapt 53 per cent since the mid-1990s, to the point where it's now an annual expenditure somewhere in the realm of $7.1  billion. Even good old Jean Charest coupled his supposedly reactionary tuition grab with a $118-million boost in student aid.

Obviously academic loans bring problems of their own. For one thing, they contribute massively to the long-term personal indebtedness of Canadians, which economists routinely cite as the single biggest ticking time bomb threatening this country's economic future. But an even greater concern is the degree to which this merry-go-round debate over tuition, enrolment, and aid -- the perennial obsessions of both real politicians and self-proclaimed student leaders -- has sucked so much air out of the larger higher education discussion we desperately need to have.

We know, for instance, that since admittance to Canada's mega-campuses has jumped more than 50 per cent over the last 15 years, the phenomena of "degree inflation" poses an unprecedented challenge for millennials, whose BAs have been rendered depressingly useless due to overproduction. A mad scramble for rich foreign students, both at home and abroad, has likewise led to lower standards for essay-writing and argument -- not to mention increased racial tension among the student body.

Campus life, similarly, has become an increasingly self-indulgent experience where students study less, party more, and enjoy mostly indifferent, unproductive relationships with their similarly distracted instructors -- yet rarely suffer any academic consequences. Guaranteed a comfy ride, students frequently reserve their strongest critical faculties for the "country club" aspects of college: the food, the gym, the bar. A populace that is more nominally "educated" than ever, yet also unable to competently perform a whole host of basic intellectual tasks is the inevitable result.

These are the real challenges of modern post-secondary education, yet they remain largely undiscussed by anyone but a small and easily-ignored clique of contrarian intellectuals and literary magazine columnists since they attribute so much blame for present failings to readily-identifiable individuals, rather than some vague and faceless "system."

Truly fixing Canada's colleges and universities will require a prolonged, difficult, and painful self-examination on the part of all involved parties -- students,professors, administrators, parents, politicians, and bureaucrats -- as we collectively ponder the various ways our shared demons of entitlement, lethargy, and greed have conspired to bring this country's system of advanced education to the brink of a crisis that is not merely financial, but existential.

And good luck marching for that.