by Anna Bratulic
The steadily rising cost of education was the impetus behind a nation-wide student protest held last week.
In Montreal, students from Concordia joined those from McGill and the Université du Québec à Montréal to take their concerns to the streets on a route that culminated at the Montreal Exchange in Square Victoria. There, riot police were called to control the increasingly rowdy protesters. Some students managed to get in and occupy the building for a time.
About 100 Concordia students gathered in the lobby of the Henry F. Hall Building before the march to staple signs and rev up the crowd with slogans. Placards had phrases on them like "Education Shouldn't Be a Debt Sentence" and "Keep
the 'Public' in Post-Secondary
Bystanders were witness to some dark pantomime when someone posing as a corporate representative, wearing Nazi-style armstraps with a Bank of Montreal logo, whacked away at a grovelling young person shackled to a ball-and-chain.
The protest was one of a week-long series of "Days of Action" organized by the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) to raise the issue of educational financing and soaring student debt in Canada. The final Day of Action took place in Ottawa on Saturday, specifically targeting Ontario premier Mike Harris and his Conservative government policies.
The demands of the CFS are that the government should completely subsidize post-secondary education and that it should replace loans with government grants. According to the CFS, the average student debt after completion of an undergraduate degree is about $25,000.
Last Tuesday, the Concordia Student Union (CSU) held a general assembly in the Alumni Auditorium to which all student members were invited. Votes on three motions took place, but since only about 100 students showed up -- far below the approximately 450 needed for quorum -- the votes were symbolic rather than binding.
The CSU's motion to hold a limited student strike passed unanimously. The second motion was for a universal opt-out proposal for this year's $180 administration fee increase, which had been accepted by the Board of Governors in the summer. Arguments were made that the fee increase had not been officially approved by the Quebec government and therefore could be refused by the students. There was only one vote of dissent.
Finally, the third motion was to increase the number of student representatives on the Board of Governors from four students to nine. This motion also passed unanimously.
The CFS Days of Action were given national as well as local media coverage. Rector Frederick Lowy was interviewed on the local television show Municipal Affairs, and said he hoped the student protest would be successful in persuading the federal government to invest in education.
"If access to education is reduced, then we are going to suffer as a society," Lowy said on the program.
Quebec grants to post-secondary education, on which university budgets depend, have been reduced by 25 per cent over the past five years. Quebec tuition, which provides 15 per cent of the budget, has been frozen at about $1,668 per year since 1994, which may account for the relatively muted student protest here.
However, tuition fees have risen precipitously in other provinces. Nova Scotia now has the highest average undergraduate fees in Canada, pegged at $3,903, and is followed closely by Ontario.
Street theatre dramatized students' protest against indebtedness to banks and the threat of diminished access to university.