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Squarely in Debt Tuition hikes across the globe limit educational access. In MOntreal, protesting students stop traffic, storm classes, and shut down the metro. How far will the maple spring go? BY ZOĂŤ MINTZ


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n Villeray, one of Montreal’s workingclass neighborhoods, the clang of wooden spoons on stainless steel starts on the street corner. Single pot-bangers soon multiply and head east to the nearest metro station and busiest intersection. Demonstrators abandon the sidewalks for the streets. Toddlers with constructionworker headphones hit tiny saucepans in their strollers, grandparents in pajamas greet marchers from their doorsteps, and students join the steady stream of protesters by the thousands. They bang their dishes at a set beat, ignoring the traffic that flows around them. By 8:30 p.m. a crescendo of chimes, dings, and tolls ricochet off the neighborhood’s row houses, churches, and storefronts.

P hotos by E mily S h e ari n g


Protesters of all ages gather in the streets of Montreal each night.

hristened the casseroles — French for kitchenware — by the general public, these demonstrators represent the latest development in a four-monthlong student strike against the government’s planned public university tuition hike. Nightly casserole demonstrations develop organically throughout Montreal and converge at the city’s downtown core. Most participants wear red felt squares attached with safety pins to their lapels, a symbol of the cause. The red square first appeared in the last tuition hike strike in 2005 symbolizing the student’s fear of being carrement dans la rouge — squarely in the red, or in debt. Indeed, Quebec students are seeing red. Since Feb. 13, about 170,000 Université du Québec and college students boycotted their classes in reaction to a 75 percent tuition increase. Quebec has the lowest university tuition fees in North America — $2,168 a year. The proposed hike,

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which starts this month, increases tuition by $325 per year for the next five years. Compared to the rest of the continent, the amount seems minimal. But in the eyes of Quebec’s striking underclassmen, this move, coupled with the current economic environment, threatens their access to higher education. Student unrest resides beyond the borders of this Canadian province. “Public higher education is definitely in crisis — totally in crisis,” says James Garland, former president of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and author of Saving Alma Mater. “The idea that a democracy should provide educational opportunities for all citizens from all walks of life — rich or poor — is broken down in this country. That’s why I think so many people are concerned about this,” he says, pointing to tuition increases and subsequent student protests across the globe. “I think the protests are a symptom of the pinch that students and their families are feeling,” he says. “They’re good at calling attention to a problem,


but they’re not very good at offering solutions.” Students across the globe — from England to Chile to the U.S. — face tuition increases, says Sandy Baum, an independent policy analyst for the College Board, who holds a doctorate in economics from Columbia University. Like Quebec, state college tuitions continue to rise. According to the College Board’s 2011 report “Trends in College Pricing,” tuition increased by 8.3 percent in the past year at four-year institutions and 8.7 percent in twoyear institutions. California raised tuition by 21 percent at its four-year public institutions and 37 percent at two-year public colleges. California State University’s drastic tuition hike prompted students to organize a hunger strike last May. David Inga, a 22-year-old graduate student and member of Students for Quality Education at California State University Fullerton, participated in the strike by drinking only juice and water. He still managed to attend class until he was forced to eat on the strike’s eighth day. “Often students don’t feel engaged. They’re in and out and just want to get their degrees,” Inga says, describing his SQE’s intentions for starting a hunger strike. “In reality the university system is falling Masks and covered faces have been common at the Montreal protests — especially among those who have been accused of apart.” In the past, CSUF students spoke out at looting, arson, and vandalism. After four people wearing masks trustee meetings, lobbied state legislature, and smokebombed the city’s metro system in May, the Montreal municipal government passed a bylaw banning demonstrators protested at sit-ins and rallies to no effect. from wearing masks at protests. Students protested at other institutions, too. Matt Cordeiro, 22, outgoing president of Rutgers University Student Assembly, joined 35 members of the United States Student Association in a Washington, D.C., jail after protesting in front of Sallie Mae’s headquarters. Protesters sought to renegotiate the terms for loan repayments, citing their heavy debt burden and the public institution’s high profits. The group also demanded a meeting with Sallie Mae CEO Albert Lord. Seth Hoffmeister, 21, outgoing president of the United Council of

the red square plays on the saying carrement dans la rouge (“squarely in The red”). The symbol has covered the city.


UW Students, protested too. “It was a Monday morning and we definitely ruined his day,” he says. Out of 200 student protesters, 36 of them were charged with trespassing. Hoffmeister expects more students to join movements. “It’s the only expanding market. As more and more people feel disenfranchised, they want to fight back,” he says. “It’s a lot cheaper than grad school.” About one-third of Quebec’s student population joined the strike. This leaves a large group of students dubbed by the press, a silent majority, who support the tuition increase but aren’t as vocal. “A lot of people are currently waiting for it to be over. They just want peace,” says Vicky Rodgers, 19, a Quebec student at

Collège Montmorency. tudents and teachers at Rodgers’ school began boycotting classes in mid-March. Prior to the strike, the aspiring accountant planned to begin her undergraduate studies at Concordia University in the fall. But the strike delayed her plans. In Quebec, high school graduates must attend a two-year college before enrolling in a threeyear university. In May, after months of striking, the provincial government effectively canceled the semester, postponing the start of Rodgers’ undergraduate studies for one year. Rodgers refused to wait. “After all the work I’ve done to get into university, and to not

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The group of protesters known as The Rabbit Crew have risen from student protests as folk heroes: Children flock to their knees and hundreds of citizens from all walks follow them through the darkened Montreal streets.

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Video BY PETE WAYNER


go because of some hippies was completely ridiculous to me,” she says. In May, she rallied 24 students and petitioned the Quebec courts to force teachers back to class so they could finish their semester. The court granted Rodgers and one other student an injunction. The two returned to school. Two weeks later, the college canceled classes after anonymous callers delivered bomb threats. In contrast to the protesters, tuition-hike supporters wear green felt squares. But Rodgers

instances of looting, Molotov cocktails, and arson. Police responded with riot gear, tear gas, and controversial street sweeps. By May, the movement had its own Twitter hash tag: #maplespring. Protests intensified: smoke bombs shut down the metro at rush hour and hundreds of masked protesters stormed university classrooms. Less than a week later, the minister of education resigned, and the provincial government passed a law imposing $125,000 fines against student unions that did not

A NIGHT OF PROTEST (Clockwise from top left): The march stops traffic; protesters bring bikes to ride home after the 8-mile march; a protester bangs on a pan before the march begins; and a stranded bus waits for marchers to pass.

doesn’t need to wear one. She spoke out against the strikes at every general assembly hosted by her student union, and in return, she’s experienced Facebook attacks, verbal abuse, and intimidation. Many in Montreal feel harassed. The protests paralyzed the city with reported

submit their march routes to police in advance. Protesters ignored the measure and subsequent illegal marches reignited the students’ cause and brought worldwide attention. Protesters in New York, Chicago, and Berlin, as well as other major Canadian cities, took their kitchenware to the streets in solidarity.


American students may sympathize with their Canadian counterparts but don’t mobilize like them. Students in America face much steeper tuition fees, but demonstrations remain infrequent and small. Wisconsin’s Hoffmeister frames the issue this way: “We’re promised something we’re not getting. We take out a shitton of loans, enter the job force with $25,000 in debt, and try to find jobs in our fields that just aren’t there.” He finds examples in his own family. His 30-year-old brother graduated with an anthropology and environmental studies degree and now works at a grocery store. As student loan debt surpasses the $1 trillion mark, many young Americans begin their working lives shackled with debt. In this election year, the debt crisis is a political issue. Recently, presidents from 10 colleges and universities visited the White House and pledged to clarify information on tuition fees, financial aid, and loan repayment. President Obama discussed the issue with Jimmy Fallon and asked Congress to prevent interest rates on subsidized Stafford loans from doubling on July 1. “You can certainly see why they’re upset having to shoulder a financial burden they just can’t afford,” says Garland, the former university president. In New Jersey, Cordeiro organized a sit-in at the university president’s office to protest tuition hikes. During the two-day protest, 30 striking students dwindled to 13. But still the university responded, cutting the proposed tuition hike by half, the smallest increase in a decade. “It took two years of organizing in different ways to get us to that point,” Cordeiro says. “It was pretty incredible.” ompared to the United States, the tuition hikes in Quebec are minimal, largely thanks to the students themselves. Quebec has the cheapest tuition in North America, because students have protested to keep it that way since the 1960s. Quebec universities raised tuition only 10 times in the

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Historical Student Protests

From holding a dean hostage to staging kiss-ins, passion for justice fueled these episodes of student activism. -Tara Donaldson

swipe >> 7. Chilean winter, 2011 — Since May, Chilean students have refused to falter in their demands for education reform: better access to public education, increased funding for secondary education, and an end to for-profit higher education institutions. They’ve progressed from peaceful kiss-ins to tear-gassed clashes with police. Protesters have held cacerolazos, or saucepan protests, in the streets — which inspired Montreal protesters to bang on their own kitchenware.


Georgegiana Tanudjaja It took me about two and a half years to pay off my student loans. to I lived with a friend in an apartment, Scroll read more and for three years, we lived like students — sharing rent inToronto to save money. My college business classes taught me how to get out of debt and manage my money. Right after graduation, I had the opportunity to go on vacation with my friends, but I knew I didn’t have Hard-won success stories from the the money to go backpacking around Europe. front ofauditor student debt Instead, I got a lines job as an and started paying off my loans. I just paid off as much as I could in bimonthly payments. I used a spreadsheet to keep track of my budget. Each month, I separated the costs of my fixed expenses like rent, bills, and transportation from my variable expenses: entertainment, eating out, and shopping. I tried to minimize these latter costs because those are things you can control.That’s the key. I subtracted my total expenses from my monthly income, and whatever was left over in my budget, I put toward my loans. Ultimately, I think it’s about self-discipline. As long as you have a goal in mind, you can do it. I might not have gone on trips, but I was still able to get the things that I wanted. If you’re in debt, make a budget and focus on paying off your loans right away. -Georgegiana Tanudjaja, 31, is an auditor who lives in Toronto.

from red to black

Jessica Barnett Right now, I owe about $50,000 for student loans.That’s after working through college and paying $250 to $300 a month toward my debt. After graduation, I almost doubled my monthly payments when I got a job working for the government.That all stopped after I was laid off in December. I was receiving $65 a week on unemployment, and had to have most of my loans deferred. My debt dictated the way I lived my life. I had to take a job unrelated to my field. I stopped eating out and brought my lunch to work. I didn’t get to travel home to see my family very often. For my budget, I use a free app called Pageonce that tracks all my accounts — checking and savings, credit cards, student loans, and phone. When I get paid, the app helps divide up my check across the accounts. It also sends me text alerts when I have bills due, if I’m approaching a credit limit, or if there is unusual spending or a large purchase made with my cards. Looking back, I wish I’d been paying off a little

last 43 years. But there are costs to affordable tuition. Quebec’s universities face tremendous debt, cramped libraries, overcrowded classes, and diminishing faculty. McGill University, one of the most prestigious in Canada, faces about $100 million in debt without any assets to back it up. Striking students blame the university’s economic woes on fiscal mismanagement. “When a right-winger and a left-winger can agree on that, it’s probably true,” concedes Alex Meterissian, 22, a McGill University alumnus whose coffee brown hair, square jaw, and discerning voice represent the public face of tuition hike supporters on local TV and radio. “Where we disagree is the amount of mismanagement. They think they can find $300 million of mismanagement. That’s impossible.” Students accuse Canadian lawmakers of compromising diversity in the classroom by raising tuition. “They hope to go to the American model and create a market mentality for higher education,” says Dominic Hardy, an art history professor at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM), who holds a doctorate in art history from Concordia University. “The students reject those values completely.” In Wisconsin, Hoffmeister witnessed the limitations of high tuition. Some of his high school peers could not afford to attend university because of their socioeconomic status. “As we continue to pay high tuition and high financial aid, we close the door to so many,” he says. “Inside the classroom there’s complete homogony — a cesspool of ignorance.” By courting those who can afford to pay exorbitant tuition, universities exacerbate this problem. “When I was an undergraduate in college, you could pay your tuition for a public university by working summer jobs,” says Garland. “Today, as an in-state student


This is what is so vital for us in the U.s. to understand, and what the students in Quebec clearly recognize: the right to education at any level, historically, has been won in the streets.

at a public university, people are mortgaging their homes. There’s no hope for families from that kind of background to make the kind of financial commitment that they need to make in order to send their kids to college.” Over the past 70 years, higher education for middle- and lower-class Americans has been a recent development. America’s working class began pursuing higher education after World War II, says Derek Ford, a graduate student at Syracuse University’s School of Education. The GI Bill, passed in 1944, gave millions of World War II veterans access to higher education, peaking in 1947 when veterans accounted for 49

percent of college admissions. But Ford points out that this educational equality was achieved for the most part by white, middle-class men. Minority students like African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asians had to sit-in, walk out, and protest to gain access to higher education. “This is what is so vital for us in the U.S. to understand and what the students in Quebec clearly recognize: the right to education at any level, historically, has been won in the streets,” Ford says. Ground zero for Montreal’s student protests is Place Émilie-Gamelin, a park next to UQÀM’s campus. The police expect violence hours


Montreal Police, including an anti-riot squad, gather in response to the student protests.

after a breakdown in negotiations between student groups and the government. As 8:00 p.m. approaches and the park’s perimeter glitters with red and blue sirens, the city’s French and English media infiltrate the square grabbing as many sound bites as possible. Protesters produce waves of pot smoke and join the crowd armed with dented kitchenware. Jeanne Reynolds, 20, a college student and spokesperson for CLASSE, the largest and most militant student group, stands on the edge of the crowd of thousands. A demonstrator ignites a round of red fireworks several feet in front of her, but she continues to talk about the movement. “With massive actions like this we can make moves in the government,” she says. Protestors fill the streets of Montreal with pots and pans, bringing their bikes along to make the trek back home. Marches often go as long as eight miles.

Squarely in Debt  

Feature article for Twenty What Magazine on access to higher education in North America

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