36,000 Quebec students going on strike over tuition-fee hikes

QUEBEC - About 36,000 post-secondary students in Quebec are expected to desert their classrooms Tuesday amid strikes over tuition hikes.

The strikes have been triggered by votes at universities and colleges, with students at some institutions choosing to use the tactic to apply pressure against the Charest government.

While less than 10 per cent of the province's students have chosen to participate, the figure has grown considerably in recent days.

Premier Jean Charest showed no sign of budging Monday.

He called his government's policy "fair" and well-thought-out, following consultations held over a number of years. Charest added that bursaries and loans would increase in order to guarantee student access, as part of a broader series of measures to increase funding for Quebec universities.

"For example, every student who has a bursary will see their bursary increase with an equivalent amount of money of the increase in tuition fees," the premier told reporters Monday.

"We expect everyone to pull their share and do their share and the government itself, through taxpayers, is going to do the lion's share of extra funding... What's behind all of this is quality education in our universities in Quebec."

Students are upset that the government will nearly double tuition — to $3,800 from the current $2,200 — over five years. They say education is a fundamental right and the tuition increase will discourage some people from continuing their studies.

But the government notes that Quebec tuition is so low that, even with the increase, it will still be the lowest in Canada.

The anti-government campaign has become more aggressive in recent days.

A Montreal police spokesman says 37 people arrested last week, after they occupied a downtown college, are due to return to court.

He said those picked up had to promise to reappear to face charges of mischief and armed assault against police.

The students had barricaded themselves in a college and hurled projectiles at police before being rounded up shortly after midnight early Friday.

One student spokesman said Quebec can afford to spend more on universities without squeezing students. In fact, he said, the government could even make university free if it imposed new taxes on the banks or mining companies.

"From our point of view, it shouldn't be about making education less and less accessible, like the Liberal government's proposing," said student activist Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois.

"We need a debate on free education, which is a choice made by many countries and which is altogether achievable in Quebec."

But another student, with a group that supports the tuition increases, explained why he was siding with the government position.

"We would all love it if everything in life were free," said Jean-François Trudelle, a McGill University student.

"But we need to realize that education is under-financed in Quebec. Students need to appreciate the value of their diploma... We have a lot of catching up to do. There were some bad political decisions made over time and, now, it's time to pay."