The Day Intelligence Died at the Roddick Gates

15 Nov, 2011

I like to consider myself a fairly loyal person.  If I agree with an association’s philosophy, or if I identify as part of the group, I will support it through most circumstances. However, the protest that took place on November 10 has made me feel ashamed and embarrassed to be associated with the McGill student population. Not only was the protest’s motivation poorly thought out and extremely shortsighted, but the actions that took place during the demonstrations reflected behaviour uncharacteristic of any McGill student worth his or her salt. While every citizen has the right to peacefully protest, this does not include treating the city like one’s personal piñata.

Essentially, the strike was to protest Quebec MP Jean Charest’s plan to annually increase tuition by $325 until 2016, a proposition that is grossly overstated as hindering many students from being financially able to attend university. Core to the argument is the whining that if Europe can have “free” education, then why can’t Canada? First, let me introduce the concept of opportunity costs in layman terms: nothing in life is free. In the case of education across the pond, I must point to the tax rates. The average European value added tax rate is 18.05%, compared to 10.04% in Canada (federal and provincial combined). Furthermore, countries with the highest taxes around the world are Scandinavian states such as Denmark, Norway and Sweden, with all three clocking in at 25%. Given how much the public reacted when the HST pushed taxes up 2%, a case of 25% would most likely spark an “Occupy Wellington Street” movement. Therefore, to say that the Europeans have it better demonstrates poor understanding of the situation and belies McGill’s proudly-held global perspective.

Second, the protestors claim that an increase in tuition will reduce the number of students able to attend university, citing high student debt levels at existing tuition rates. As I alluded to previously in Let Them Eat Pitchbooks, protests like these get a kick out of painting an apocalyptic image and building a mountain out of a molehill. However, the truth may not be so scary. Take the example of Ontario: from 2006 to 2011, tuition fees increased by 123% to $6,307. Yet, over the same period of time, enrolment increased by 104% to 448,467. If Ontario, which has consistently outpaced Quebec in tuition increases, can continue to experience enrolment growth, then I see no reason why students would not be able to attend a world-class institution like McGill. As far as I know, student financial circumstances are equal across provinces.

Nonetheless, even if tuition rates remained the same, there is no denying the harsh reality that McGill is in serious debt. The university is in need of some source of capital. By pushing for the status quo, or even demanding lower tuition, the protestors are shooting themselves in the foot. Resources like libraries and labs – essential services for many a nocturnal student at McGill – will have to be scaled back in hours and services. To drive the point even closer, clubs such as the beloved QPIRG and CKUT that enjoyed electoral victory and funding support will once again be strapped of cash. If the argument exists that tuition hikes won’t make up the shortfall, then petty increases in club fees are a laughable idea. Even from an employer perspective, a university that cannot afford to pay good money is by no means attractive to a professor, no matter how idealistic he or she may be. As pointed out in a blog by Political Science professor Stephen Saideman, the value of the McGill name and degree would therefore fall into a vicious spiral.  Professors would leave for greener pastures, with potential students choosing to avoid a failing infrastructure and a declining number of top-tier professors. Those who so vehemently protest against the hikes need to understand that tuition is not a static fee that can remain the same while quality is increased. There is, in fact, only so much bang one can get from the relatively small buck students pay out. It would certainly be a shame to see this place as a decrepit, has-been university that is a shell of what it once was – all because logic could not be heard over the din of blind idealism.

The protests were also alarming regarding the level of intelligence I had previously perceived of McGill students. However, not once have I heard a statement that shows consideration of what the increases would be used for. Even if the university failed on its part to publicize how these proposed increases would benefit the university, it is also on the onus of the students to inform themselves. Maybe only ten cents on the dollar go towards building Principal Munroe-Blum’s private castle, instead of the whole dollar? Maybe the tuition would allow for greater library resources and campus equipment, further funding for clubs, or employment of more top-tier professors? Without inquiring into these possibilities, the students are only knowledgeable about one side of a situation – a stance we are taught to be dangerously ignorant. Even better, the students could demand something more useful than fighting the increase: a say in the allocation of these finances. As many discussions I have partaken in have devolved to petty personal jabs at Principal Munroe-Blum and the administration, why not proactively work with them to improve the system rather than reactively grumble and gripe every time the administration is in the news? Many students defend their idealism with the statement that it is quintessentially their duty to be idealistic and improve the world. What better place to start than one’s own backyard?

Finally, I must address the nature of the protests themselves. While I think protesting was a poor decision in this case, I concede that there is an inalienable right for people to do so – as long as it remains peaceful. Gathering from what I saw, the proudly-held cries for peaceful protests devolved into despicable taunts while objects and insults were hurled at the police. Regardless of who shot first, one cannot hide behind the veil of innocence while lobbing placards and paraphernalia at the police. Furthermore, even if the police did attack the crowds first, vengeance is by no stretch of imagination a good reaction while harping about nonviolence. Such an action shows not only disrespect for the argument, but implies cowardice of the lowest form on the part of the few who incited violence.

As in the case of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the students in Montreal need to maintain a balance between idealism and a realistic assessment of the situation. Instead, Facebook groups teem with childish and idealistic ideas of “striking back” against the evil corporation of McGill and its Orwellian police force. Apparently half of McGill hasn’t graduated from sixth grade.

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