MONTREAL (Reuters) - Students unhappy about planned hikes to some of the lowest tuition fees in North America have moved out of the classroom and onto the streets of the Canadian province of Quebec in more than two months of protests dotted by outbreaks of violence.
With an outcry that parallels Europe’s deep unhappiness with austerity, the students say the Quebec government’s plans means they will leave university owing tens of thousands of dollars.
Supporters sport a flashy, red felt square to express that they are “squarely in the red.”
“People study a whole diverse host of things, and do social work and community work after they study, and they shouldn’t be beholden to thousands upon thousands of dollars of debt that sometimes they can’t repay,” Douglas Smith, a striker and graduate student from New Jersey.
The 13-week strike is a challenge for the unpopular Liberal government, which must call an election by the end of next year. Polls show the Liberals are trailing the separatist Parti Quebecois, which wants independence for the province.
Some 180,000 people - more than a third of the college and university students in the predominantly French-speaking province - are striking over plans to increase annual tuition fees by C$1,625 ($1,640) over the course of five years, a 75 percent hike.
That means no classes for the strikers, and regular demonstrations, including a March 22 rally in Montreal that drew an estimated crowd of 200,000 people.
Quebec tuition fees are now C$2,168 a year, just over a third of the U.S. public education average cost of $6,400 and a fraction of the U.S. private sector average of $18,500. The Liberal government says the hike is needed to improve the higher education system.
Over the weekend the two sides reached a tentative deal to end the strike, and the strikers will vote this week on whether to accept the proposals. But Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, head of the militant CLASSE student group, said the agreement did not offer enough.
“Probably a lot of students are going to vote against this offer,” he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. on Monday.
Most demonstrations against the tuition hike have been peaceful, but black-clad radicals stormed offices, vandalized public places and blocked traffic on a number of occasions. Police responded with tear gas and several hundred arrests.
Aware of the impact that the strike could have on the class of 2012, universities are giving students extra time to complete their winter semesters, and a group of “socially responsible” students is campaigning to get students back to class.
“If you want to carry out a social conflict based on political ideologies, do it through elections, rather than in the name of 176,000 students, half of whom don’t want to be involved,” said spokesman Marc-André Talon.
The tuition fee increase is the latest in a raft of measures from Quebec’s government as it struggles to wipe out a budget deficit of around C$3.3 billion last year, the second biggest provincial deficit after Ontario.
Quebec says the hikes are needed so students can share the cost of improvements to an underfunded higher education system.
“We’ve been discussing this question for years. If we want to ensure a good quality higher education, more financing is needed,” said finance ministry spokeswoman Catherine Poulin.
The Conference of Rectors and Principals of Quebec Universities says the higher education system needs an additional C$600 million a year.
“We have to stop believing that we can provide a quality university education and be competitive when it comes to research while continuing to under-fund our universities year after year,” said the Conference’s Luce Samoisette.
Most say government concessions to phase in the tuition increases over seven years rather than five do not go far enough.
“Education should be funded through taxes,” student organizer Rushdia Mehreen said at a sit-in outside the Montreal office of Quebec premier Jean Charest. “And students will pay tax when they’re earning, once they finish their studies.”
A number of non-students in Montreal are now wearing red patches to show their support for the strikes. In parts of the city, red square banners hang from apartment balconies.
Editing by Janet Guttsman, David Ljunggren, Doina Chiacu