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Charest government weakened by Quebec student strike

by Peggy Curran

With a brutal and prolonged strike by more than 170,000 university and college students finally winding down, administrators at dozens of Quebec campuses are now scrambling to salvage the winter term.

Yet it is Jean Charest's Liberal government which has emerged from the conflict looking battered and bruised. After going 15 rounds with younger, fiercer and more agile adversaries, the Liberals caved to demands to restore $103 million in bursary funds. Now they may back away from what should have been the main event - ending the freeze on tuition, pegged at the bargain rate of $1,862 for more than a decade.

In late February, after months of grumbling, students at CEGEP and university campuses kicked off the first of dozens of unlimited and one-day walkouts aimed at forcing Quebec to restore the $103 million it had shifted from bursaries to loans in the 2004 provincial budget. Within weeks, the conflict had escalated, with students at 18 CEGEPS and virtually every university campus taking part in demonstrations, sit-ins and raucous marches. Walkouts at McGill and Concordia universities and most English-language CEGEPs were symbolic one-day affairs, which had little or no impact on university operations. Administrators warned that classes would continue as scheduled and even student leaders said no one would be compelled to miss school.

Contrast that with the situation at Université du Québec à Montreal and other institutions in the Université du Québec network where the strike was strongest. By April 1, all 42,000 students in seven faculties at UQAM had been out of class - more than half of them for over a month - with the blessing of the faculty and the administration. Even if students turned up for classes, professors were directed by the administration not to teach new material or hold mid-term exams. It took three tries before UQAM's advisory board was finally able to meet and propose a plan to rescue the semester. With the strike not yet over, UQAM voted to extend the session for an undetermined period beyond April for students who had missed more than three weeks of classes.

For its part, Université de Montréal said it would extend the term by four days, mainly to accommodate about 5,000 students who joined the strike in the first week. But with 18,000 of U de M's 33,000 undergraduates having missed several weeks' classes, Maryse Rinfret Raynor, vice-rector for undergraduate studies, urged professors to post readings, hand out assignments and deliver lectures online.

Throughout the conflict, student leaders accused Education Minister Jean-Marc Fournier of fear-mongering, saying threats to cancel the term at CEGEPs or hold back CEGEP students would cause financial and logistical havoc. Quebec high-school graduates attend two years of CEGEP before enrolling in university.

Yet few people bet on the strike lasting so long. By early April, CEGEP administrators at the six campuses most disrupted by the strike had yet to decide what to do to try to salvage the year. However, with CEGEP teachers poised to go on strike themselves, such plans may prove irrelevant.

From the start, the decision to shift millions from bursaries to loans, rather than make it part of a comprehensive tuition reform, seemed mean-spirited to many, by targeting the very students who are least able to pay more. On the eve of a massive demonstration in Montreal on March 16, Mr. Fournier offered to reinstate $95.5 million, now called loan rebates, over the next six years. Sensing the government's weakness, student federations rejected the offer.

In a last-ditch negotiating session on April 1, Mr. Fournier reached a compromise deal with the two main federations representing university and CEGEP students. The offer, which awaits approval by students, would reinstate $70 million to bursaries in the coming school year, with $103 million back in the financial aid package by 2006-07. The radical fringe group CASSéé (Coalition de l'association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante), representing about 50,000 students (mainly at CEGEPS), rejected the offer and vowed to stay out. But it was a stunning victory for the two main student groups, the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec and the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec, which had insisted the entire $103 million was not negotiable.

In the end, the whole debacle has left the Charest government looking short-sighted and ill-prepared to take on the challenge of raising tuition.

Peggy Curran writes about universities for the Gazette in Montreal.

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