Ollie Sutherland argues that students in the UK have much to learn from current anti-fees protests in Québec
One cannot help but contrast the current, powerful student movement in Québec, Canada, to its counterpart in the UK. It was considered a big deal when in November 2010 we had roughly 100,000 (who came from around the country) on the streets of London, whose population proper is roughly 8 million. In comparison, 200,000 turned out for recent protests in Montréal, whose population proper is roughly 1.6 million (and only 3 million in the wider urban area).
Both events were provoked by a hiking of tuition fees – in the UK a 200% increase to a whopping £9,000 a year, in Québec a 75% increase to £2,400 a year. This is not to mention Québec’s tuition fees were, and with the increase, are still lower than the North American average. This is in contrast to the UK, whose fees of £3,000, before the trebling, were already much higher than the European average.
Unlike in the UK, in Québec, after the large demonstration, most of the students did not just head back to university. The movement is a full scale student strike, which has lasted so long now (nearly three months – since 13 February), that it’s likely most will have to retake the university year due to tuition time missed. This difference in tactics is important: those in Québec recognise a large demonstration showing how upset or ‘angry’ they are will not force a benevolent, democratic state to reconsider. What’s needed is a serious disruption to the status quo, the working day, the operation of capitalism: a prolonged strike, until the state and the capital interests that run it concede.
Disrupting the operation of capital is exactly what the students have attempted: radical students have four times succeeded in blocking the port of Montréal for a few hours (22 March, 28 March, 5 April, 10 April). This was done by blocking the roads to it, some activists using the same black-bloc tactics activists in Oakland used a few months ago. Hundreds blocked the entrances to the main office of the government-run corporation for the distribution of alcohol in the province. Activists unleashed a plague of locusts into classrooms of the city’s main business school which required professional exterminators to contain. Daily, students block major roads across the city. These actions have been limited to a select few militants, yet the fact they’ve even happened, and their persistence, is deeply encouraging. Activists have vowed to keep disrupting economic life until concessions are won. Solidarity with workers has been present: thousands of students joined a solidarity protest together with Rio Tinto steelworkers facing a lockout, while students joined fired Aveos airline workers in Montréal city centre protesting job cuts.
Activists have not shown any hesitancy to target the state, too. Back in January hundreds blockaded the entrance to the Ministry of Education’s building. A few weeks ago, hundreds blocked the entrances and occupied the offices of the CEGEP Federation (Québec’s equivalent of the Russell Group). Some, confident from the hitherto success of the strike, have even gone as far to tackle liberation issues: disrupting government meetings – one of the homophobic and racist Québecois immigration minister for those stances he holds, and another which was planning to sell off indigenous North American land to private energy companies.
Under Québecois law it is illegal for students to strike, yet it is legal for workers: hence what the student strike represents is a recognition students too are workers – people who have their labour exploited. We should pay attention to this – the efforts of the strike to link with the wider working class struggles against capital. It is indeed a pleasant surprise, given many students’ lack of interest in the UK anti-cuts movement, or even hiked tuition fees for future entrants, that will not affect their ability to get a degree and thus enter a high-pay job. (Of course, the current amount of graduate jobs is not infinite, but this is still the reason why many that go to university choose to do so, and certainly why they studied hard to get into ‘better’ universities – ones whose qualifications will open more doors).
However, it is also the apparent impossibility of successfully resisting cuts that drives apathy. Seeing no successful fight means people cannot even conceive of and hence consider engaging in anti-cuts activism. This issue is essential; for example, in my university, it was how (and thus why) many wealthy middle-class kids got into the anti-cuts movement: the occupation of a large, prominent space in the university gave a clear possibility to fight cuts, hence many who would otherwise be apolitical got involved. In Québec, the clear possibility of action, aided by the support of many of their teachers, got the kids involved, and the success of said action has meant the movement has not lost any significant momentum.
I don’t want to discredit the genuine hard work of many in the UK student movement. But it’s vital we look to Québec and see what a real struggle looks like. It’s vital we ditch the pathetic National Union of Students bureaucracy and any bourgeois fantasies about an accountable, democratic government. This call comes at the time when activists at the annual NUS conference are fighting just to get the NUS to call a(nother) national demonstration. Unfortunately, the only demonstration this may turn out to be is one showing that we cannot revive the movement we had in 2010; let’s hope the same will not be the case in Québec.