Quebec student group keeps up pressure on PQ

The most vocal of Quebec's three major student groups plans to keep up its campaigning and possibly protesting in the months to come, hoping for an eventual 100 per cent cut in university tuition fees.

The Coalition large de l'Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante, or CLASSE, protested Saturday in Montreal and is planning to hold meetings at the end of this week to decide how to proceed with its strategy.

Quebec's two other major student groups — the federation of college students, or FECQ, and the federation of university students, or FEUQ — say they're content with the new provincial government's decision to cancel an 82 per cent tuition hike imposed by the former Liberal administration.

But CLASSE, which has about 100,000 members among Quebec's 450,000 post-secondary students, says it wants education to be completely accessible by being entirely free.

"Our struggle for accessibility to higher education is not yet over," said Jérémie Bédard-Wien, a spokesman for CLASSE.

With the tuition hike revoked, Quebec has the lowest university fees in the country for students who come from the province. Students from elsewhere in Canada studying in Quebec pay more than double the amount.

But Quebec's fees are still way higher than what post-secondary students paid 20 years ago. Since then, university tuition has gone up 140 per cent in the province — about three times the rate of inflation.

The new Parti Québécois government says it favours indexing future tuition increases to inflation but has promised to call a symposium on the issue.

CLASSE will counter indexed tuition in favour of "education that is free — not only from tuition fees, but also from corporate influence," Bédard-Wien said.

The organization is waiting to hear the details of the PQ's education symposium before deciding whether to participate.

At least one Quebec politician who supports the idea of free tuition said it would be a tough undertaking in the province's minority legislature.

Françoise David's Québec Solidaire party is in favour of free education and will continue to promote it. David says her party has demonstrated that it is economically feasible in terms of a five-year plan where funding slowly shifts to a zero-tuition model without cutting university revenues.

However, the opposition Liberals and the Coalition Avenir Québec party — who between them hold a majority of the seats in Quebec's national assembly — most definitely are not on board, David said.

"It will be possible for a government that has the mandate," David said. "It's a question of time: We have to go step-by-step and convince the population that it's possible."

At least 20 countries in Europe charge no or only nominal fees for post-secondary education, including countries like France, the Netherlands and Sweden, where university tuition is free. Mexico's main university charges mere pennies to enroll and has Nobel Prize laureates among its faculty.

Bédard-Wien said he believes all that is possible in Quebec with better management of university funds and a commitment to allocate tax dollars and find financing from other sources.

Critics point out that the UQAM, the University of Quebec in Montreal, lost $300 million on its failed Îlot Voyageur construction venture, just north of the city's old bus terminal. They also highlight that universities have boosted the number and salaries of administrative staff, to the point where McGill University's dean of medicine made nearly $560,000 last year, including benefits — just one of nearly four dozen Quebec university administrators who took in a pay package of more than $200,000.

There are "societies that have made progressive political choices for public services to be accessible," Bédard-Wien said, noting that Quebec can do the same. "That we have tuition here is a political choice that can be reversed."

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