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May 24 2012
Original French Text: http://la-lanterne.eu/chroniques/lettre-ouverte-au-premier-ministre-du-quebec/7220
For 100 days now the students of Québec are protesting tuition increases.
I am writing you a letter that you won’t read, even if you had the time.
Ten years ago, I was brought to the University of Montreal (l’Université de Montréal) to contribute to excellence in the education and research of bioinformatics, an emerging field particularly important for molecular medicine. To make me leave my position as director of research at CNRS in France, I was offered a Canadian research endowment that not only provided me with the funds to conduct my research, but also a $30 000 bonus. Better still, the government of Québec exempted me from provincial income tax for the first five years. I should have been careful, but scientists are very naïve. How can you consider that a government is serious in its support of universities when it exempts the richest from income taxes, my salary being in effect about $100 000?
In fact, these financial considerations were of little importance. University excellence, a very demanding and very delicate humane practice, necessitates above all a favorable framework. Québec, a democratic region, respectful of rights, with quality education, where it was good to live, therefore drew me by the biochemistry department’s humanely rich research environment and. Even if this idyllic vision modified itself a little over time, I never envisioned returning to France. Not only have I paid my provincial income taxes with pleasure for five years, but I have also chosen to transform the bonus in to a research grant to recruit supplementary students. In short, everything was going well until 100 days ago.
Before returning to these disastrous 100 days, I would like to show you, Mr. Premier, in using the economic language that you so love, that the return on my investment is excellent. My immodesty, which is probably the only thing that I share with you, will not suffer from it. Excuse me for the necessary technicality of this paragraph. The principal criterion for evaluating fundamental research is the number of publications, above all in the best scientific reviews (only the publications in Nature and Science reviews are taken into account in the celebrated, as well as criticized, classification of universities carried out, for example, by the University of Shanghai) and the number of citations. With a small team and relatively modest financial means, our work was seen in four publications in Nature and Science (the University of Montreal in it’s totality has published 49 since 2003) and received more than 1000 citations in 2011. Ask your experts, you will find very few researchers in Canada, or even in the United States, with such high productivity, that is to say scientific impact per dollar invested.
100 days ago everything changed for me. A massive, democratic student movement raise a primordial question, the university tuition that your government decided to increase by 75% over 5 years, did they favor excellence in research. Is it a good idea to make the students pay for cutting edge research? 100 days of student strike and no negotiation or almost none. Worse still, 100 days of student strike and practically no debate of the question. Everything was done to talk about other things than excellence in education and research. Is it a boycott or a strike? A broken window here, an unannounced route there. Is the condemning of violence by student associations sufficient? At the same time, despite grievous injuries, we have never heard the government call for a limit on police violence, I’ll get to that.
Mister Premier, why, therefore, do Québec and Canada prefer to recruit researchers of excellence from countries where education is free, or at least very inexpensive like France, China, Germany, Argentina, Austria, India or Russia? Why aren’t recruitments taking place in the countries where tuition is very high, like the United States? Why is the same United States limited to recruiting so many students and professors from abroad if their education system, very costly for its students, performs so well that Québec has to imitate it? Without pretending to resolve this paradox, I can give a few thoughts. In transforming students into clients, several means of pressure are introduced that permit the strong degradation of excellence in education, and in the same way excellence in research, that, let’s remember, rests foremost on the students. The clients buy their diplomas and except, therefore, to obtain it, even if they aren’t at that level. Subsequently, the university has every interest in keeping its clients, because they constitute their principle source of financing. In these conditions, why make a client fail an exam, because that would reduce the resources of our department and our university, going counter to the professors’ interests? The professors who, maybe you’ve forgotten, Mister Premier, are foremost human beings, find themselves face to face with students every day, who are also human being, but human beings struggling to survive in a world where riches are more and more monopolized by a small minority. How then, humanely, can you refuse to allow a serious student into a class who has worked hard and who is deeply in debt, but who is just bellow the required level to satisfy the high demands of current intellectual knowledge? How can you, humanely, allow a young person to have a large debt and no diploma?
None of the pressures induced by university clientelism is on their own decisive for the degradation of the quality of education. But they all go together in this sense and there are very few governmental measures to maintain excellence in education, the good will of students and teachers saves us, for how much longer, from collapse. In the United States, where studies have been very expensive for a long time, the final grades of a student are positively correlated with the amount of tuition, seriously! Student debt there is currently more than a thousand billion dollars, and education has already severely degraded. One crucial question is how it will be paid back, to the extent that it can be. Mister Premier, yes, the question of tuition fees and university excellence is very complex and cannot be resolved by a special law, but by a large, long and difficult democratic debate.
Democratic debate, but what a strange concept I just brought up. Democracy seems, for you, to come down to one deposit in the ballot box every four years. But how can we believe that someone can intelligently decide all of the complex questions that our world is confronted with using just one ballot? How I didn’t despair when a student association, CLASSE, was vilified, insulted, dragged through the mud because its representatives respected the mandate that was entrusted to them through democratic votes! What horror, elected officials refusing to abuse their power, refusing to have their personal opinions put forward instead of those of the people they represent, and an unimaginable outrage, daring to maintain that they will consult their base! Mister Premier, how can I accept seeing the fundamental principles of democracy flouted by a government supposed to work for the development of democracy?
True democracy, that isn’t the dictatorship of the majority, has to put in action multiple systems, forces of opposition, to guarantee the rights of each person. How can the minorities be respected if one vote alone every four years is considered sufficient? It just so happens that because of the baby boom, the youth, the students, constitute a small minority in Québec. There are more people over 75 than youth from 15 to 19, a fraction of the population that had no right to vote in the last elections anyway. There are only 500 000 youth between 20 and 24, but more than 2 million seniors over 65. In such a context, and without a long debate, what is the chance of getting across the idea that almost free university studies guarantee excellence in education when the concrete impact of such a choice will serve the interests of Quebeckers in 10, 20, or 30 years, before the idea of an immediate lowering of income tax?
100 days of struggle lead by hundreds of thousands of Québec’s youth having only the power to protest peacefully and sacrifice their own session. And what answers did the powerful Québec government produce? Contempt, the absence of dialogue, repression and now a special law that reduces the freedom of expression for all and that leaves it to the police, and maybe soon the army, to settle the question of university excellence. There is zero need to be an expert to imagine the violent repression that will be necessary to stop a movement so deep, so massive, so motivated. Every night that my children, or their friends, go out, it’s with fear in my stomach that I await their return, jumping at every telephone call that could tell me the loss of an eye, head trauma, or even worse. Yes, I know, the police do a difficult job, yes there are very rare rioters who want start a fight and hide themselves amongst the crowd, yes there is now a lot of fatigue. Conditions have come together so that serious blunders occur. Mister Premier, act so that they don’t occur, support the police who do their job well and condemn those who abuse violence, like for example at brasserie Saint-Bock. Do you truly believe that pepper-spraying tourists will allow the recruiting of researchers of excellence and the formation of excellent students?
100 days of struggle with bare hands in front of a deaf power, authoritarian and violent, can they explain themselves only through the question of tuition fees and university excellence? Not at all. The youth feel well, see that our societal model is collapsing; all of the markers are to red; a degraded biological environment, with global warming and multiple chemical pollutants; a general exhaustion of resources that forces the exploitation at great cost of the tar sands, shale gas, metal at the bottom of the oceans or in the Great North; an immoderate financial system that survives only through subsidies, generating a public debt impossible to pay back. These 100 days of struggle are an extraordinary cry of desperation from our youth, desperation that crystallized on the question of tuition fees, but that denotes a very deep societal malaise.
Québec is the first rich region to gain massive consciousness of the wall in which we are embedding ourselves before the economic crisis manifests itself in an evident way like in Greece or in Spain. Mister Premier, you have the extraordinary opportunity to have at your disposal a courageous, innovative, politically aware youth, ready to explore a new future that will make us avoid all of the serious dangers mentioned earlier. Or do you hope to choose stubbornness, blindness, repression, violence and force me to live in another country where democracy, education, nature, in short, human society, will be able to blossom?
Canada Research Chair in Bioinformatique et Génomique Evolutive,
Biochemistry Department - Université de Montréal
Translated from the original French by Translating the printemps érable.
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