Rex Murphy’s Naive Take on the Quebec Student Protests

On CBC’s The National last night, Rex Murphy weighed in on Quebec’s student protests; the transcript can be found here,  and the three-minute video here.  He calls the protests “short sighted,” points out that Quebec already has the lowest tuition fees in Canada, and suggests the students’ actions are “crude attempts at precipitating a crisis.” He says they are the “actions of a mob,” are “simply wrong,” and should be “condemned.”

I am glad to learn that Mr. Murphy does not feel inhibited when it comes to expressing himself.  However, I think his analysis would be stronger if it included a bit of nuance.

I would urge Mr. Murphy to consider the following:

First, as recently as 1979 in Canada, government grants covered 80% of a university or college’s operating budget.  Today, they cover approximately 50% of a university or college’s operating budget.  Times have certainly changed.

Second, indicators gathered from reliable survey data paint a troubling picture of living conditions for post-secondary students in Quebec.  Relatively recent data suggest the following:

-50% of full-time undergraduate students in Quebec live on less $12,200 per year.  This includes any funds from internal and external scholarships, money from co-op programs or internships, government grants or loans, money from family and child support.

-40% of undergraduate students in the province receive no financial assistance whatsoever from their family members.

-More than 80% of Quebec’s full-time undergraduate students are gainfully employed.  Of those who are gainfully employed, roughly half work more than 15 hours per week.

-Two-thirds of full-time undergraduate students in the province do not live with their parents.

-20% of Quebec’s full-time undergraduate students over the age of 24 have at least one child of their own.

-More than half of full-time undergraduate students in Quebec receive no financial aid whatsoever.

-57% of Quebec’s full-time undergraduate students pay more than 30% of their income on housing. (Note: Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation considers a household to be in “core housing need” if it cannot find suitable, adequate housing in the local market without paying more than 30% of its income on housing.)

Third, Quebec’s lower tuition fees appear to bring about positive outcomes.  Though Quebec does have the lowest tuition fees in Canada, it also has higher post-secondary participation rates than in the rest of Canada.  It should also be noted that students in Quebec typically graduate with considerably lower student debt than their counterparts in Ontario, which has the highest tuition fees in Canada.

What’s more, in Newfoundland and Labrador, where the provincial government has increased funding for post-secondary education in recent years and reduced tuition fees such that they are now among the lowest in Canada (almost as low as Quebec), enrollment has increased quite substantially, and student debt has decreased very substantially.

Clearly, there is more to the Quebec student protests than meets the eye.  One can choose to condemn them.  One can also seek to understand them.


  • Methinks you are too kind to Rex Murphy. He has never let facts get in the way of his opinions before.

  • Rex Murphy has been a true wanker for some time, but what makes his latest screed so frustrating is that he is betraying his fairly formidable student activist past.

  • In Europe, university is ( or was in my young days )
    almost free. Why does it have to be so expensive in Canada?

  • Yeah — good ‘ol Rex – a geezer with a great vocabulary who has absolutely nothing intelligent to say about anything.

    Odd duck.

  • Thanks for the update on student/postsecondary finance Nick. Unhappily the unfortunate Rex is not alone in his negative take on the Quebec student strike.
    The students are demonstrating great courage in defence of their convictions. Makes you think the Quebec education system cannot be all that bad if it got the students to question the dominant order, and then take it on.

  • Well said, Nick. Rex is a blowhard, pure and simple, with nothing to add to the debate except to pander to Canadian public opinion that tends to be uncomfortable with strong protest and let’s that discomfort obscure meaningful reflection on the issues. What disturbs me more is that students elsewhere in Canada are not taking to the streets – not simply over this issue, but over the entire absence of socially progressive government in Canada.

  • But Rex Murphy’s personal character is largely irrelevant to this. His argument is far from original. It is brought out again every time any union contemplates job action, for instance, and every time basically any social program gets cut. In general, any time any group of people tries to create pressure to be treated fairly, or better, or not worse.
    The basic reasoning goes: There are other people worse off than you, so until you’re as badly off as they are you shouldn’t complain. In this case the chosen yardstick is other students in Canada, but if it were students in Ontario protesting the yardstick would be students in the US, or Mexico, or if necessary Somalia.
    As an argument, it’s roughly equivalent to someone kidnapping a group of people and when he starts raping the last one saying “What are you struggling for? Everyone else in the room has already been raped. Why should you be better off?”

  • Corporate media lackeys such as Rex Murphy would have you believe that the student protests in Quebec are all about what student’s pay for tuition in Quebec versus what student’s pay for tuition elsewhere in Canada. The old tactic of divide and conquer to avoid discussing the real issue at hand which is
    – the growing class divide in access to post-secondary education
    -lack of availability of jobs that provide living wages when students graduate with crippling student debt
    – the economic marginalization of the young adult population of Canada
    – the hypocrisy of a federal government who talks about investing in the future while pursuing policies that is creating a generation of unemployed and underemployed youth
    The student protests in Quebec while they may have galvanized around hikes in tuition really are a form of general civil unrest which reflect the frustrations of a marginalized and disempowered generation and the rants of Rex Murphy are the rants of a increasingly irrelevant and out of touch generation.

  • This comment by Mike Konczal, of the Roosevelt Institute, on the Quebec student strikes is well worth a look.

    “The strike is heading into a dangerous time. The administration isn’t looking to make concessions on tuition and students are approaching the point where they won’t complete the semester. This will be worth watching in the weeks ahead.

    Why are these sites so potent for activism? The college campus combines several issues into one: the privatization of public services, the dismembering of social insurance and its replacement with a regime of debt and risk-shifting, and the dismantling of the primary means of social mobility with one designed to entrench inequality, which all builds toward a lack of freedom to fully develop one’s talents and abilities and be full, productive citizens.

    These students are right to fight this battle at the beginning, during the initials cuts. Privatization creates its own justification; the more public universities are defunded and reconceived as a private good, the less civic interest there is in defending them as a public good. And they are also fighting at the beginning of their lives, both for what kind of world they want to live in and against the constraints of indenture that we see when this process of privatization and debt reaches its ultimate conclusion — a path the United States is much further along.”

  • I would only say that any numbers referencing higher Quebec post-secondary rates need to be taken with a grain of salt as it includes CEGEP. They are therefore not directly comparable to other provincial statistics.

  • ROC (Rest Of Canada)

    Should Quebec Students be entitled to Lavish University Subsidies, when the rest of Canada gets along just fine with tuition that is double the going rate in Quebec?

  • @ROC (Rest Of Canada)

    I wish it was double… I’m paying 3 times as much!

    I understand why Quebecors are mad, but times are changing, schooling costs more, they compensate by raising tuition. It’s how the world works people, get over yourselves.

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