I was giving a speech recently looking at long-term trends in higher education, when a young fellow called me out. Why, he asked, was I projecting long term trends that remained stable or declining? Why couldn’t I see that if we just got a major social movement together– you know, like the Red Square movement – we could change all that, and see a glorious new age of post-secondary funding!
It’s a nice idea. Problem is it’s really hard to see how it ever comes true.
Take the Red Square movement, for instance – clearly one of the strongest social movements in Canada in the last couple of years. Here’s what’s happened to the budget for post-secondary education over the last four years, in real dollars:
Figure 1: Quebec Government Transfers to Universities, 2011-2015, in Billions of Real $2015 (Source: Quebec Expenditure Estimates, 2011-15)
See that? Despite massive protests, no change in expenditures to universities. (I know, it looks like there was a one-time bump in 2014-15, but that was the budgeted amount before announcing mid-year cuts, which effectively wiped out the increase.)
Here’s the thing: social movements can be quite effective at getting governments not to do things. They can prevent cuts to certain programs. They can persuade governments not to charge for things they were going to charge for – like tuition fees. But other than the UBC Great Trek of 1922 – which, you know, was 94 YEARS AGO – I can’t recall a single time in Canadian history where a major social movement actually got a government to spend significant sums of extra money on higher education.
(Quick aside to all you UBC folk out there: who was it that decided a 12 km walk across the lower mainland constituted a “Trek”? It’s not like West 4th street is the frickin’ Transvaal. Yeesh.)
To sum up: social movements – in higher education, at least – are most effective as agents of conservatism, keeping things as they are. Social movements do not wrest new resources out of government. But they can force changes like a tuition freeze or maybe even tuition reductions, because that doesn’t cost a thing, and so frankly it’s no skin off government’s nose. In other words, social movements – at best – can be a vehicle for taking money out of universities and handing it to students. But there is simply no precedent in Canada for them making institutions any better off.