Student strike is just: Quebec's students have done everything they can to persuade the Liberals to put money back in bursary pr

By Nick Vikander, Freelance
EDITORIAL / OP-ED; Pg. A19
The Gazette (Montreal)
March 11, 2005 Friday

The Gazette editorial (March 9, "Students headed for school of hard knocks"), portrays the growing student strike against the $103-million cut from student grants as hot-headed, unjustified and irresponsible. This could not be farther from the truth.

The strike is simply the next logical step in a pragmatic campaign students have been waging for more than 11 months, and the only remaining way to convince the government to reinvest the millions it cut from Quebec's poorest students.

That is why the Federation etudiante universitaire du Quebec, for the first time in its 15-year history, has called on its 170,000 members to strike.

During the past 11 months, FEUQ has tried every possible way to come to a solution with the government. Students participated in formal and informal government consultations, meeting with the education minister and the premier. On Nov. 12, more than 12,000 students took to the streets to denounce the cuts. Student representatives met with the majority of Liberal MNAs throughout the province, launched telephone campaigns, advertising campaigns and demonstrated to the government it would lose $70 million in annual funding from the Millennium Scholarship Foundation if it did not restore the grants. Students even found a solution for the government, showing Quebec would receive millions in extra funds next year because of improvements to the federal Canada Student Loan Program. Despite all these efforts, the Charest government has refused to reverse its decision.

With only a few weeks before the budget, a student strike remains the final way to sway a government that refuses to recognize a social consensus.

Pushing back the end of the school year, even by a short time, would put substantial pressure on the government. In financial terms, the government would face increased costs as it continues to pay professors and for the upkeep of schools.

Moreover, the government cannot afford to deprive itself, even for a short while, of the qualified post-secondary graduates it needs to keep Quebec's economy rolling. That's why Education Minister Jean-Marc Fournier's threat to cancel the academic semester is pure bravado. It has never happened in the history of the Quebec student movement, precisely because the financial and economic costs of such a decision would be catastrophic for the government. In short, the minister is bluffing.

Despite claims to the contrary, taxpayers strongly support the student cause, and they're not the only ones. Two Leger Marketing polls, in November 2004 and this month, show more than 70 per cent of Quebecers oppose the cuts. The cuts have also been denounced by both opposition parties in the National Assembly, all of Quebec's unions, every youth group in the province and such government advisory bodies as the Commission superieur de l'education and the Parliamentary Committee on Universities.

What's more, the rectors of Universite du Quebec a Montreal and Universite du Quebec a Rimouski both publicly backed the students' demands, adding their voice to those of lecturers and professorial staff. The consensus is so strong, it even includes the Liberal Party caucus. Le Soleil reports that, in a closed-door caucus session last Wednesday, Liberal MNAs were almost unanimous that the education minister find a solution by restoring student grants.

Such a consensus is not surprising, as the cut was simply a horrendous policy decision. It targets the poorest students, increasing the average debt load to more than $20,000 after an undergraduate degree. Despite relatively low tuition-fee levels, student debt in Quebec will now exceed the Canadian average. In concrete terms, a young couple would have to repay $400 per month, every month, for 10 years to pay off their combined debt.

Such students who are concerned with being able to start a family, to start a business, and to become established as productive members of society cannot fairly be described as pampered whiners. Rather, it is a measure of students' maturity and determination they continue to fight against a highly regressive measure whose consequences will be felt throughout society.

The student strike movement is growing day by day. By next week, more than 150,000 college and university students will be on strike. Some will strike for one day, while others vote to renew their strike every three days. Thousands more will take part in a large-scale demonstration in Montreal on March 16.

Before being shuffled out of cabinet last month, Yves Seguin said the government did have sufficient funds to reinvest the money it had cut. To be clear, $103 million amounts to a tax cut of 50 cents per week for the average taxpayer. For the government not to admit and correct its mistake would simply be madness.

Nick Vikander is vice-president of university affairs at the Federation etudiante universitaire du Quebec.