Students drum to protest ‘debt sentence’

Stauffer Library was noisier than usual on Tuesday afternoon, as students sounded off in protest against the province’s recent decision to allow universities to increase tuition.

Banging drums and loudly chanting phrases like “Education under attack! What do we do? Stand up, fight back,” 40 students gathered outside the library to voice their opposition to the tuition proposal released last week.

“We’re just trying to do our bit,” said Simon Kiss, SGPS VP (External) and an organizer of the rally. “If we don’t do anything, [the government] sure won’t act on it—they’ll take the money and run.”

Kiss said other protests have been staged at various universities across Ontario, adding that the protests were to ensure that Premier Dalton McGuinty wouldn’t “get away with” allowing a tuition hike.

Toby Moorsom, SGPS VP (Internal), agreed.

“We should actually be talking about a reduction of tuition fees,” he said. “Education should be free, it has been free at numerous other periods in our country’s history, and we should be returning to that point in time.” The proposal allows an annual 4.5 per cent tuition increase for first-year Arts and Science students and an eight per cent increase for first-year professional students, with an annual four per cent increase for upper-year students.

Moorsom said it’s especially important for Queen’s students to be concerned about the new legislation.

“This university was at the forefront of tuition deregulation and the privatization agenda throughout the ’90s,” he said. “We have to oppose that here, more so than everywhere else.”

Andrew Stevens, a PhD candidate in sociology, said he doesn’t agree with raising tuition fees in the name of quality.

“It’s like saying that there’s a monetary value, like one dollar equals one dollar worth of quality increase,” he said. “But they don’t define what quality means, what the money will do, who’s making decisions, et cetera.”

Laura Greenwood, ArtSci ’09, said she attended the protest because she is worried about the future of her education.

“I’m here because tuition fees are ridiculous,” she said. “If I plan on going to grad school, they’d better not make me pay more.”

Waving signs that read, “Education shouldn’t be a debt sentence,” and “Please, sir, can I go to school?” the crowd marched to Richardson Hall to speak with Principal Karen Hitchcock in her office. Finding the office closed and Hitchcock unavailable, members of the crowd addressed their concerns to Patrick Deane, vice-principal (academic).

Deane told the Journal he admires the students’ commitment to this issue, and that accessibility is “crucial” in the eyes of the administration.

“The administration is committed to the whole issue of maintaining and improving access,” Deane said. “Universities have a very important trust they have to fulfill, and one of them is operating for the good of society.” Deane added, however, that the cost of running a university is high, and students should be expected to share the expenses.

“The taxpayer can only bear so much of the burden,” he said. “Students need to shoulder some of that, and they do.” Jeff Welsh, a PhD candidate in history, said increasing tuition fees has a significant social impact, as students graduating with significant amounts of debt are more likely to choose a career based on financial concerns.

As well, Welsh said decreasing financial accessibility also affects the demographic makeup of an institution.

“Are we trying to recreate an all-white business elite?” he asked.

From Richardson Hall, students made their way downtown, drumming and chanting “The students! United! Will never be defeated!” They made an impromptu stop at the Royal Bank of Canada branch on Princess Street, surprising the tellers who were on their lunch break and tried to shut the security gate after the protesters opened it.

“This bank has $40,000 of my student loans and I have a right to be in [the bank]. You cannot kick me out,” Moorsom said. “Your CEOs and your shareholders are accumulating profits off our student loans.”

Behind him, students cried, “Shame! Shame!”

The protest continued to Kingston and the Islands MPP John Gerretsen’s office, only to find that he was out of town. By this point, the number of protesters had dwindled to about 25 students.

“I have no access to him,” his secretary told the group. “I’m in no position to answer your questions.”

She added that she would be happy to book an appointment for a “reasonable number of people.”

Eric de Domenico, ArtSci ’08, said that even though the demonstrators were unable to reach Hitchcock and Gerretsen, he thought the protest went well.

“I’m happy with the turnout,” he said. “People weren’t afraid to take to the streets.”

Moorsom said he is concerned about the effects a tuition hike would have on an already homogenous student body.

“Students from visible minorities tend to be more often than not in poverty relative to rich white Protestants that this institution has founded itself on,” he said. “In terms of diversity of content and diversity of population, Queen’s is very weak.”

Deane told the Journal that while the University is committed to increasing aid “wherever possible,” this commitment is mitigated by a commitment to quality.

“For me the key question is what it is that we’re talking about access to,” he said. “Access to an education that is substandard is a questionable right.”

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