Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: student unions

February 25

Is This the Worst Student Movement Ever?

I’m trying to imagine a worse excuse for a student movement than the one Quebec has at the moment; and I have to say that I’m not sure I can.

I mean, sure, the Canadian Federation of Students has talked some awful crap about how reducing net tuition for poor students is unacceptable, unless richer kids get a break too – really ludicrous stuff, which objectively favours richer students over poorer ones.  But so far as I know, they’ve never actively aided and abetted a government that was intent on making universities poorer.

But that’s what FEUQ, and the rest of the Quebec student movement, seem to be doing right now.

True story: a few weeks ago, the Conseil des Recteurs et Principaux des Universites du Quebec (CREPUQ) put together a paper which argued that Quebec universities were underfunded relative to their Ontario counterparts to the tune of $850 million per year, or a shade over $4000 per student.  These kinds of comparisons are always a bit fraught, but it was not a bad paper and, obviously, it was meant as a bargaining chip – a way of setting some markers in negotiations with government.

So, what did FEUQ do?  Something that, to my knowledge, no student organization in world history has ever done. They became mouth-pieces for the PQ government, curtly dismissing the study by saying, “just because our schools don’t have as much money as somebody else doesn’t mean they’re underfunded”.

No, seriously, that’s what they said.

FEUQ’s train of thought seems to run something like this:  1) Universities want more money; 2) the provincial government is broke; 3) therefore, new money can only come out of tuition fees; 4) therefore, we’d better oppose this.  The problem is, if you concede point 2 you’re more or less screwed in terms of asking something for yourself, like a more generous student aid system (which Quebec certainly needs, at least for dependent students).   And you’ve gone and hacked-off one of your most natural allies as far as higher education is concerned.

And, frankly, you’ve failed students.  I mean, if the student movement can’t argue on behalf of better funding for education, who can?

I understand and support the students’ argument that universities could better manage their affairs in order to keep pressure off tuition.  Certainly, there have been a number of inexcusable high-cost screw-ups in building construction, which have reflected badly on Quebec universities’ managerial competence, and put needless pressure on university budgets.

But starving universities to keep tuition low is a recipe for long-term decline.  A student union would have to be extraordinarily short-sighted, selfish, or stupid not to see that.  FEUQ’s clearly not stupid; draw your own conclusions.

September 05


I was listening to an interview on American radio this the weekend with one of the leaders of CLASSE. The proceedings were sensible enough until the interviewee claimed that Quebec not only had the country’s lowest tuition fees, but also that it had the country’s highest levels of access.

This is, simply, a lie. Quebec’s participation rates are inflated by its CEGEP system, which includes grade 12 – a which is offered in secondary school elsewhere in Canada.

Then came the usual stuff about how higher tuition leads to lower levels of access. This is not quite a lie, but it is far from truthful. If the tuition increase is large enough and there are no new grants to help the neediest, then yes, access could be affected (though as we’ve seen in the UK, the effects still aren’t as large as one might imagine). But since neither of these conditions holds true in Quebec, using it as a rationale for the strikes is also, essentially, a lie.

I know we’re not supposed to use words like this. We’re supposed to indulge student leaders, to praise their youthful, idealistic enthusiasm. If they make factual mistakes, it’s just because they’re young and can’t be expected to know the social science.

But student leaders are not innocent part-timers. In Quebec, student leaders receive government “scholarships” to subsidize their work as professional union leaders. Outside Quebec, the CFS has dozens of professional staff, some of whom have been on the student payroll for over a decade. These people read. They know the statistics. And yet they continue to spout untruths and advocate policies which are actively regressive.

Both the Quebec student unions and CFS support policies which benefit richer families at the expense of the poor. When political parties and governments choose to pay attention to this nonsense, it has real, adverse consequences. Excusing the objectively regressive policy objectives of some student organizations as “youthful idealism” lets them off the hook for the real damage they do.

Why do they do it? I think it differs across the country. Outside Quebec, I’m pretty sure it’s pure cynicism, playing on people’s fears about social inclusion so they can deliver bacon in the form of lower tuition fees to their members. Within Quebec, there’s also the statism element. One gets the impression sometimes that student leaders are less concerned with accessibility than with reverting to an economy where government plays a much more dominant role. Which makes sense: today’s Quebec student leaders seem to have clear designs on being tomorrow’s politicians and they have an interest in ensuring that the state they will one day inherit is a powerful one.

Regardless of their motivations, there is no reason anyone else need accommodate them. Lies are lies, and they need to be confronted.

April 23

Good Governance and Student Unions

Some interesting news from New Zealand recently, where a bill on Voluntary Student Unionism recently became law. Basically, what this means is that student unions there won’t be able to collect automatic membership dues, the way ours do – rather, they’ll need to raise their money directly through voluntary contributions from students. This isn’t unprecedented – Australia’s Liberal government did the same thing in 2005, and the results weren’t pretty.

Why hasn’t such an idea come to Canada? I’ve been told by reasonably reliable sources that it actually was on the table during Ontario’s Rae Review in 2004, but was left out of the final report. It’s certainly easy to see that as in Australia and New Zealand, the impetus for such a move is likeliest to come from a right-wing government under constant attack from student unions (Quebec, anyone?). But there would need to be a pretext for such a measure – and a good financial or voting manipulation scandal is probably the likeliest route.

These, unfortunately, are a bit too common for comfort in Canada. Concordia’s student union’s travails are beyond parody, but are still nothing compared to those at Kwantlen. And that’s all in addition to the shenanigans that have been ably documented by student union guru Titus Gregory in his magnum opus Solidarity for Their Own Good.

Most student unions, of course, are run ably and democratically. Levels of professionalism vary but that’s to be expected in any youth-run organization. The Unions at Western and U of A, for instance, regularly produce great executives, and the standard at the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance is also unfailingly high. The worry is that a few bad eggs might spoil the party for everyone else. Make no mistake, voluntary student unionism would be devastating for campus activities and would have all sorts of negative knock-ons as far as student engagement was concerned.

I wonder if student unions might inoculate themselves against this kind of thing by coming up with a self-imposed process of accreditation which would certify adherence to standards of good governance. Apart from any inherent good such a process would bring to participating unions, it would ensure that anyone wanting to regulate the field wouldn’t be able to tar all student unions with the same brush.

Alarmist? Maybe. But it’s one of those things: if you delay implementation until a crisis actually hits, it will already be too late.