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March 23, 2012

Over 200,000 students on strike against tuition fee increases in Quebec

by Tim McSorley

Students strike against tuition fee increases in Quebec

The student strike across Quebec is gaining momentum, with a growing number of daily actions and a record 215,000 students on strike.

As of today, according to the Coalition large de l'Association pour une solidarité sydicale étudiante (CLASSE), around 215 036 students from 163 associations are on strike. Over 175,000 of those students are also on unlimited strike. The remainder are boycotting classes for a limited period, mostly around the March 22 day of action being held in Montreal. Organizers are estimating more than 100,000 students will be in the streets that day.

The strike has been ongoing since early February, when the first students voted to walk out of classes in protest against an increase of $325 per year, for the next five years. This equals a 75 per cent increase in tuition fees. The Quebec government has said the increase is necessary in order for students to pay their fair share of the cost of university education. In today's provincial budget, there were no changes to either tuition fees or to financial aid. Finance Minister Raymond Bachand told media outlets that for him the issues were closed.

But pointing to studies that show higher education attendance rates drop when tuition fees are raised (regardless of financial aid packages) and that a higher percentage of lower income students attend post-secondary institutions in Quebec than any other province, students have said that the issue is not one of dollars and cents, but of the choices made by society.

Even on the dollars and cents field, though, students have offered up responses. This includes a new study that shows that by increasing the number of income tax brackets, the Quebec government could raise more through a progressive tax system that at the same time lowers tax rates for 87 per cent of the population. The plan would also raise enough funds, they say, to maintain the freeze and help fund other social programs such as health care.

Education Minister Line Beauchamp has so far refused to meet with student associations to discuss their proposals or the tuition fee increases. In response, student actions have multiplied.

Today alone (March 20), students protested at two bridges leading into Montreal during morning rush hour traffic (blocking one bridge for an hour), protested outside Beauchamps' office, blocked traffic in Sherbrooke in the afternoon, and held a spoof 'For Sale' rally outside the luxury condo of Concordia University Rector Frederic Lowy, who received an interest free $1.4 million loan to secure the accommodations.

In response, Beauchamp told students they should stop "pissing off workers" (cessez "d'écoeurer les travailleurs") by blocking traffic.

Despite the government eyeing the possibility that these actions will drive a wedge between workers and students, labor unions, community organizations, artists and teachers have continued to voice their support in growing numbers, with tens of thousands - mostly non-students - having attended a support rally last Sunday along St-Denis street in downtown Montreal.

Reprinted with permission by the Montreal Media Co-operative.