On Saturday, October 22, hundreds of students from around the province gathered in Quebec City to protest tuition hikes and other budgetary measures announced by the provincial government last March.
Starting on the outskirts of the city, the protest moved downtown to the Quebec City Convention Centre, where about 2,000 delegates were meeting for the Liberal Party Convention, the majority party in the Quebec National Assembly.
The theme of the protest was “rouge de colère” – red with anger. Tomatoes were thrown at a poster of Premier Jean Charest’s face, and some students came dressed in red.
Quebec university tuition is set to increase $325 per year, for five years, starting in September 2012. The increases will raise base provincial tuition from $2,168 to $3,793, which is below the Canadian average.
In March, the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ) referred to the increases as a “declaration of war against students.”
About ten McGill students took part in a SSMU-organized bus trip to the demonstration and back. Among them was SSMU VP External Joël Pedneault, who explained in an email to The Daily that SSMU’s stance is to “oppose all financial barriers to accessing university, including tuition fees.”
“Tuition hikes will not only increase the amount of debt people have to get into to finish their degree,” he wrote, “but might also deter some people from even enrolling in university in the first place.”
Quebec Finance Minister Raymond Bachand disagrees.
“Nothing allows us to establish a causal relationship between the amount of students enrolled in university and tuition,” wrote Bachand in his official budget plan, released in March. He said that a third of the generated funds will be returned to students through bursaries.
The Quebec government says these are necessary measures to deal with inflation, and claims that students would still be paying less than 17 per cent of the total cost of their studies by 2017.
Pedneault remains skeptical.
“It seems to me that the Quebec government has decided to raise tuition fees…because it is much easier than raising taxes on the private sector or wealthy taxpayers, both of which might decide to withdraw their support for the current government if they had to finance a larger portion of public expenditures,” he said.
He also believes that the government has chosen “the one method of financing universities which primarily benefits financial institutions – incurring debt means having to pay interest, every cent of which goes straight to the finance sector.”
In March, McGill Principal Heather Munroe-Blum told the CBC that she had hoped for even more of an increase in tuition. In her view, “the government has been quite timid in the steps that it has taken with respect to tuition. This will leave Quebec’s universities still dramatically underfunded vis-a-vis their Canadian counterparts.”
Yet Pedneault maintained that “the government is essentially banking on its false hope that students will not be able to organize to prevent tuition increases.”
Marie-Pier Isabelle, president of the Quebec Young Liberals, said that no matter how many protests are conducted, the government would not overturn its decision.
“Throwing tomatoes is certainly not the way to go about dealing with these issues,” she told The Daily in French after the demonstration. “However, the Liberal Party is always open to discussing ways in which to make higher education more accessible. That remains one of our priorities,” she continued.
Another demonstration protesting tuition hikes is scheduled for November 10 in Montreal.