In comparison to the tuition and debt increases Quebec's students were facing — the government proposed increasing tuition from $2,168 to $3,793 over the course of 5 years — American (and specifically, Massachusetts) student debt is astronomically higher. According to the Project on Student Debt, the average Massachusetts student leaves college with $25,541 in debt. That number fluctuates from school to school — the average debt for a UMass Boston student is $22,387; for a Boston University student, $31,809.
The Canadian students tell the Boston activists about the functions of their inter-university coalition, CLASSE. Collectively, they say, students can act as a political force. They share stories of mass mobilizations and administration building shutdowns, and highlight the value of holding general assemblies, organizing departmentally, and coordinating across campuses.
Juxtaposed with Quebec, American students are less critical of the education industry. Why?
"America's approach to education is much different than a lot of the world," says Nicole Sullivan, a 23-year-old student, who pays for her own education at Bunker Hill Community College and was actively involved with Occupy Boston last fall. "If you go to other places, Europe or Canada or South America, education is a right. . . . Here, education is seen as a privilege that can be taken away if you mess up or don't work hard enough. There's this mindset that going into debt is how you earn an education."
But in order to live in America, a post-secondary education is necessary, Sullivan says. "Whether that's a privilege or a right, it's a necessity. For us to get our basic needs met — housing, food, healthcare — we need to go into debt. It's bullshit."
Quebecois students are coming from a different context, said Chinich.
"In Quebec, there's a history of students having fought every attempt at raising tuition," he said. "If students have a history of fighting back and winning, they'll remember it."
Similarly, in Chile, the country's history of student protests throughout the past decade has provided a foundation for the massive uprising that began last year — with hundreds of thousands of students striking, marching in the streets, and occupying school buildings, demanding education reform.
"In May, it was just occupation after occupation after occupation of different schools," says a 23-year-old Chilean student named Gabriel Ascui Gac, who has recently been part of student protests in Chile. "Then a lot of marches [and] manifestations. "
Gac was first involved in student protesting in 2001 when, as a 13-year-old, he joined high-school students fighting school bus fare hikes. Since then, he has seen little assemblies of students meet over the years, but in 2011, the movement exploded, making "deeper demands for free education, demands for a new type of student government, a new view of how the state universities and private universities should relate," said Gac.
Chile's recent political and cultural history has led to a more radicalized and socially critical youth population.
"We have historical wounds from the dictatorship that make it a special social context," said Gac.
Romina Akemi, a Chilean-raised PhD student at UC Irvine, agrees. Akemi lived in Boston last fall and was active with Students Occupy Boston and Tufts Occupiers.