Canada’s Ancien Régime says, “Let Them Eat Student Loans.”

Posted on June 11, 2012

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One of the more famous moments of the French Revolution probably never happened. In all likelihood, Marie Antoinette never uttered the phrase, “Let them eat, cake,” in response to the news that there was a widespread bread shortage in France. It survives as a quasi-fact of the Revolution only because later pro-revolutionary historians thought the story neatly captured the absolute cluelessness of France’s Ancien Régime.

Unfortunately, as of late, Canada’s very own Ancien Régime  is neatly demonstrating its own cluelessness. Quebec’s students are protesting a fundamental shift in that province’s approach to university education and the Ancien Régime can only respond in chorus: “you should be happy to work your way through university and accumulate a large student debt. Everyone else in Canada has to do it.”

First, in reply to the chorus’s call, it should be emphasized that “student” jobs are almost always menial or low paying and most often both. In all likelihood, this kind of low-paying and menial work is not the most efficient use of a student’s time. Moreover, I see no good or just reason why some students should be expected to work at these kinds of jobs, when many other students will not be required to work at them simply because they won the lottery of birth. If students want to take on these jobs, fine, but no one should be forced to take them on to earn a degree.

Second, and this is easy to forget, there is no reason to assume that it’s a necessary condition of a post-secondary education that a student be saddled with a substantial debt by the end of it. In fact, not that long ago, an entire generation of people went through university and earned their degrees without also accumulating a major debt because, for a time, universities were well-resourced and cost very little.

This was possible because it was widely recognized that a university education is a public good and that governments have a responsibility to support the provision of public goods. Yes, a university education is a benefit to the student, but his or her education is also a benefit to everyone else in Canada. We all benefit from a well educated citizenry. Unfortunately, powerful interests are refusing to recognize this plain fact and are even antagonistic to the notion that governments should support the provision of public goods.

While it is certainly true that the accumulation of a substantial student debt has become the norm for many Canadians outside of Quebec, this fact does not count as an argument against the Quebec protests. It can, in fact, support an argument in favor of the protests.

Recent history outside of Quebec clearly demonstrates that an incremental increase in tuition is the first crucial step towards increased student debt loads and the systematic reinvention of the university as a profit centre rather than a public institution. Because the Quebec students oppose this reinvention, they are very wise to try and hold the line here.

Ultimately, Canada’s Ancien Régime can’t see or is unwilling to admit that the student protests in Quebec are about the role and function of universities in a liberal democracy now, and, most importantly, in the future. The choice is simple and stark: either you think tax revenues should be used to support a public institution that benefits everyone or you think a university student should take on a large debt that only benefits banks and profit-driven universities. If you support the first statement rather than the second, you should support the Quebec students and their protests.

We are very fortunate in Canada to be so wealthy that most of us in the foreseeable future will never need to worry about bread shortages. We will, in fact, have plenty of cake to eat. Nevertheless, we can’t forget that this wealth was created precisely because of a previous generation’s commitment to the very kinds of public institutions that are now under attack on all fronts — like Quebec’s university system.

To be clear: the battle lines aren’t between markets and liberal democracy. Both markets and democracies require well-educated citizens and well-resourced public institutions, if they are to work to the maximum benefit of all. No, this is a battle between liberal democracy and a burgeoning neo-aristocracy.

We can only hope that the Quebec students will hold the line long enough for the rest of Canada to wake up and, finally, start to push back against the steady and unyielding assault on our liberal democracy.

If you want a more complete picture of the events unfolding in Quebec, read Translating the printemps érable and search #ggi on Twitter.