Thursday, 17 May 2012

Open Letter to Student Strike Leaders

My name is Nathan Williams. I believe that it is still possible to achieve a win-win agreement between striking Quebec student groups and the Quebec government, but that there must be swift action to make it happen.

As a Montrealer, an MBA student who has just completed his studies, and a representative on the board of the Concordia University Graduate Student Association, I am submitting the following proposal for consideration by the leaders of the student associations.  At the end of this post is a proposed motion, which I sincerely hope will be presented at upcoming strike meetings. Read on for a summary of why I believe that this is the best path forward.

To get results

Although student resolve is strengthening, our bargaining position is steadily being weakened because of a few key factors:
  • protesters are turning on other student groups, and denouncing them (incorrectly) as scabs.  This fractures the movement's support base, both now and into the future;
  •  student leaders have not rushed to condemn illegal activity.  This costs us dearly in public support.

To get what we want from the government, we absolutely need the support of the public. Protestors who are disrupting bridge traffic, the metro system, and public events, and violating court injunctions, are causing the movement to lose public support. As time goes on, the government looks better and better for opposing the movement wholeheartedly. This will decrease the chances of our obtaining what we want.

All student protesters (and their representative groups) must immediately adopt the following actions to rally support, express respect for non-striking students and garner public favour if there is any hope of the protests having any positive outcome.

Be willing to negotiate

The tuition freeze has become a token issue that neither side is willing to concede on. Giving in on the question of tuition increase would cost the government severely in terms of public opinion, and in terms of support from businesses who have lost huge amounts of money as a result of the protests. Rightly or wrongly, striking students are starting to be viewed as terrorists in the mind of the public, and giving in would not be a good move on the part of the government, and so they will avoid it at all costs.

For students, however, giving in on the end of the tuition freeze would mean losing everything that they've sacrificed thus far, and is also not a realistic option.

What's needed is a resolution that acknowledges the reasons why the tuition freeze is so crucial, but allows both sides to avoid coming out looking defeated. I propose the following:  

A. Students agree to the tuition increase so long as the percentage of government funding of higher education does not fall below the current level.

If the government is currently paying, say, 90% of the true cost of higher education, and costs go up by $100, they would not be able to raise tuition more than $10. If the government wanted to increase tuition by $100, they would have to kick $900 more into the system.

This allows the government to: 

1.      not reduce its commitment to public education, and prevents them from doing so in the future, but not from increasing their commitment to public education in the future (clear win for students); and
2.      come out looking good because they will still be able to increase tuition, subject to the constraints outlined above (clear win for the government).

Given the escalating level of enmity between the government and the students at the present time, the tuition increase should be structured in a manner that builds trust, to wit:

B. The tuition increase would be staggered over seven years as proposed. However, it would be tied to the government cutting education costs through streamlining.  

In other words, the government would need to implement new management techniques with clear cost-cutting goals. Every year they would need to provide proof that they are streamlining the system and meeting cost-cutting milestones. Failure to do so would mean that any planned tuition increases would be put on hold until the milestone is met; and if three consecutive milestones were missed, tuition fees would be rolled back to 2011 levels.

The reason for this is that it:

1.      would provide students the reassurance that the government is not just passing the costs of system inefficiencies on to them;
2.      would shift public opinion to the student's side if the government did not keep up its end of the bargain, because the dispute would clearly become about mismanagement at that point; and
3.      would allow the government to have control over the proposed tuition increase, and to claim success and garner public favour as they met the milestones.

C. Implement activity-based costing at all schools

This is an accounting method which would standardize the way the schools are run (using best-practises) and would provide the appropriate information about how and where to save money. It would also:

  1. be a win for the students because there would be a concrete way to measure if the schools were being well-managed (or not);
  2. be a win for the government because they would have the information necessary to cut costs, and would show that they were managing the schools well; and
  3. likely take a several years to implement, and so could be tied to the tuition increases.

Don't erode the support base

It has been said before and it bears repeating:

Protesting in classrooms and vandalizing schools erodes support from other students and the general public, weakening the movement both now and in the future.

Dropping bricks and smoke bombs in the metro erodes public support and puts the government into a mode where they aren't focussed on negotiating, but are having to treat the movement as a threat to public security, which it is. Even when those responsible are not affiliated with the strike, it is imperative that the student organizations make that crystal clear.

Don't bring in other stakeholders

In official negotiations, avoid the following in order to increase the chances of striking an agreement:

  • Don't demand that banks be taxed more - that will just mean that bankers will have one more thing to lobby the government about, and they have been doing that longer (and are much better at it) than students are or ever will be.
  • Don't make demands to curtail research funding, because that will lead to other rabbit trail discussions and take focus away from reaching an agreement.
  • Don't tell the government where else they could get money from to pay for education - it will just irritate other groups and take support away from our cause.  

It's all about support

If the situation continues to escalate the government is going to start treating it as an insurrection (and we all know where that can lead). The whole strike will have been for nothing. So rally support, condemn illegal activity, and get back to the negotiating table willing to give a little to reach a compromise.

In that spirit I would like to propose...

Two formal motions for the next meeting:

I. Be it resolved that the Graduate Student Association of Concordia University considers the following terms to be an acceptable resolution to the current strike conflict:

1.      Students agree to the tuition increase as long as the percentage of government funding towards higher education never falls below the current percentage.

2.      The tuition increase will be staggered over seven (7) years as proposed by the government with the following provisions:

1.      the government will be required to implement an Activity-Based Costing system in all schools under its jurisdiction;
2.      milestones for its implementation and use in cost savings will be established, corresponding to the seven years over which tuition will be increased;
3.      for any missed milestone, tuition will be frozen at then-current levels until such time as the milestone is met; and
4.      should three (3) consecutive milestones be missed, tuition would be rolled back to 2011 levels.

II. Be it resolved that the Graduate Student Association condemns all illegal activity surrounding the student protests, be it instigated by protesters, police, or other parties, and urges all other parties (including student groups) to do the same. The GSA affirms the right to peaceful protest and expression in a democratic society.


Lori said...

Ahhh, reason where art thou? Good points nathan although I'm not sure that the allowable tuition increases will ever completely cover the actual cost. Hopefully it will be offset by better management of educational facilities but knowing what I know about Govt and large bureaucracies I am cynical.

I imagine the universities are going to have to lean more towards corporate sponsorships whether people like it or not. I still don't think that the general public in Quebec sees the need to fund university students indefinitely. there are already so many problems with lack of resources and the elementary and high school levels that need attention. Given that you can get a decent job here with a (free tuition) CEGEP diploma, can't see how the general public is ever going to be sympathetic to university students asking for more $$ .Don't forget that by the time you hit first year, I have already subsidized your education by at least 13-14 years.

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