A Red Felt Square
Student activism has a rich history at Queens College, and in all of CUNY. But I think it can be useful in understanding student activism to first look at how a different student community powerfully transformed an entire region into a battleground for students’ rights. During the 2011-2012 academic year, over half of all students went on strike in the Canadian province of Quebec. Some counts estimate that at the movement’s peak, close to 310,000 of Quebec’s 400,000 students were on strike. These students, and eventually many supporters in the community, were advocates of free post-secondary education, or as shouts would exclaim “la gratuité scolaire!” Their symbol throughout was a red square which was seen pinned on bags and shirts, and at one point as a waving flag atop the Jaques-Cartier Bridge. Over the course of the year, violence often erupted as protesters clashed with police authorities.
The strike and subsequent demonstrations were primarily a reaction to tuition increases that were passed and would have raised the cost of higher education from $2,168 to $3,793 between 2012 and 2018. In Quebec’s past, from 1968-1990 tuition was frozen at $540 per year, and had since been incrementally raised by the government with reactionary student protests occurring many times over the decades–so there was precedent. But how were students in 2012 able to both organize and maintain such an incredible collective momentum this time around?
The movement consisted of three elements that would continually produce, organize, and legitimize each other: a general assembly, an activist core, and the strike itself. In 2012, students formed the grassroots group CLASSE (broad coalition of the Association for Student Union Solidarity) and soon were joined by students from university and college student federations (FEUQ and FECQ). So students united existing groups under a single common cause. But once united, the key element to the movement’s continued success was the means by which they made inclusive decisions: direct and horizontal democracy. Town hall-style debates were held, followed by votes that required majorities to pass an action. Additionally, activists organized in decentralized networks of protest across the province.
In reaction to student demonstrations, the Quebec government imposed Bill 78, which deemed all protests illegal without preordained approval from the police. They also ceased to meet with representatives from CLASSE. Meanwhile non-student citizens became polarized on the issue, with many protesting from their own homes each night in “concerts de casseroles” banging pots, pans and other kitchenware in support of the student protesters.
In the end, the governing party changed hands, the tuition hike was rescinded, and Bill 78 repealed. It was not free education, but rather the movement was met halfway, right where they had started. Whether or not this incredible movement was a success or a stalemate is still up for debate, but despite small-scale protests since 2012, nothing has come close to the level of student activism seen in that year–and yet higher education is still not free within the province.
Wealth: Disparity, Investment and Surrender
Historically, education has been a privilege of the wealthy. In the case of Quebec in 2012, the question brought into the forefront is whether higher education should be a luxury or a right. While most nations in the world promote free education for primary school, and many for secondary schools, only a few have implemented programs that provide college education free of charge to their citizens. These include Cuba, Brasil, Czech Republic, Greece, Turkey, Argentina, Denmark, Trinidad and Tobago, Germany, The Philippines, France, Estonia, Scotland, Malta, and Sweden. Though the USA in all its mighty exceptionalism has not joined these other nations, politicians including Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont have brought the issue of free higher education into the US media spotlight.
Wealth disparity is a driving force that continually fuels conflict and nurtures collectivity amongst individuals, populations, organizations, peoples and nations. What benefits do we gain from being a part of a community or a nation? As citizens, what rights do we demand from our rulers or representatives, in exchange for surrendering and investing our wealth unto them? If college education is a powerful source of social mobility and opportunity to achieve greater equity, why have we yet make it equally accessible to all citizens in the US? Or at least here in NYC?
The Student Becomes the teacher Leader
All of this makes me wonder about the $4,638 that I had to scrounge for this semester to attend Queens College, after the CUNY Board of Trustees raised the cost of graduate tuition this summer. When I first entered higher education, I attended a private liberal arts college that gave me a massive financial aid package towards an otherwise hefty tuition price of $23,670 per semester. I was completely unconcerned with being a student “activist” at the time, and I attribute this primarily to the fact that I paid almost none of that cost.
In contrast, during my post-bacc and master’s studies at Queens College, I have had to pay my way through every credit. In doing so I have repeatedly questioned where my tuition goes. Like many of my peers I find myself often disgruntled at some of the one-time events being held on the quad, especially when I am able to dig up numbers on the costs these incur in various school budgets. I have been called a student activist, and for a long time I’ve questioned what that label really entails. In writing this piece, I have arrived at my own personal definition of activism:
Activism is organizing and committing to build something social in order to impact something institutional. It can be revolutionary or transformative. It can oppose change, or be an agent of change. It is the coming together of people to create and redefine community, culture, philosophy, lifestyle or attitude.
Though my personal story is subjective, I often wonder if paying directly for school influences a student’s inclination to engage with the politics and economics of that institution, and to rally others to take action. In my personal experience, now that I have to spend my hours outside of class working to afford my hours in class, I find myself asking of QC: What is the cost? Where does the money go after I’ve paid it? How does the institution decide to spend my hard-earned capital? How can we as students raise consciousness and gain power over these decisions?
CUNY once had no tuition cost, and there have been recent movements to return “The Greatest Urban University in the World” to its more equitable roots. Personally, I would rather fight to make the money I do pay transparent in its destination, and demand greater student choice in how that money is spent. What I find most compelling about the student movement in Quebec is their means of organizing and its scale: rejecting the bureaucratic “representative” model as flawed and embracing the power of direct horizontal democracy.
Quebec is a quintessential contemporary instance of student activism rallying the community to focus on a unified struggle. Though they did not achieve their ultimate goal of free education, they held their ground with a tuition freeze, made headlines, and set further precedent to inspire others around the world. We have our own notable history of student activism here at Queens College that reaches back decades and continues today. In my next publication for this column, I will investigate how our own campus has handled the loss of free tuition and the subsequent struggles for students’ rights on our campus.