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VIRGINIA GALT in Toronto MARK MacKINNON in Ottawa RICHARD MACKIE at Queen's Park

In the spirit of protest against government funding cuts, students held a Kraft Dinner lunch in Prince Edward Island yesterday, held a candle-light vigil in Thunder Bay, Ont., and blocked road access to the University of Victoria with old couches and beer kegs.

University and college students in more than 50 communities held walkouts, strikes and demonstrations, endorsed by faculty associations, the labour movement and other social-action groups.

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At Queen's Park in Toronto, they made up an unflattering chant about Dianne Cunningham, Ontario's Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities: "Spineless, useless, worse than Spam. What's her name? It's Cunningham."

Ontario Premier Mike Harris shot back that they had no reason to protest.

"We have substantially increased, in fact to record levels, student assistance . . . We have substantially increased, in partnership with our universities and colleges, a billion-dollar fund for bursaries," he told reporters.

Citing figures prepared by the Canadian Association of University Teachers, however, student leaders said yesterday that government grants and contracts, which accounted for 74.5 per cent of total university revenue in 1978, dropped to 55.6 per cent of total revenue in 1998.

Meantime, Canadian tuition fees have increased by an average of $1,850 since 1990, a jump of 119 per cent representing universities' efforts to offset the funding shortfall by making students pay more of the freight.

The debt load is crushing, the Canadian Federation of Students said -- students who have taken out loans now owe an average of $25,000 upon graduation.

In Ottawa, roughly 1,000 students chanted and stomped enthusiastically for more than an hour at Parliament Hill. However, it was a far cry from previous demonstrations. In 1994, 12,000 students pelted then-Human-Resources-Minister Lloyd Axworthy with eggs and macaroni during a rally against their poor living conditions.

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Yesterday, much of their anger was tinted by a sense of resignation. Carleton University students voted 87 per cent in favour of a daylong strike in a referendum last month, but many students went to class or to their part-time jobs.

"I know a lot of people I interact with have to work today, make extra money in order to get through this," said 26-year-old Adele Mugford, a graduate political-economy student at Carleton. She said that despite working two part-time jobs during the school year and a third in the summer, she recently had to take out her first student loan to deal with rising tuition and costs.

York University in Toronto also remained open yesterday despite demonstrators' hopes of effectively shutting it down, but picket lines did interfere with campus access.

At Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto, student demonstrators were bolstered by members of the "flying squad" of the Canadian Auto Workers' Local 707, whose business cards advertise support for strikes and picket lines. "When we see a scab, we must picket," is the motto embossed on their cards.

Michael Doucet, a geography professor and president of the Ryerson Faculty Association, told demonstrators that when he went to university in the 1960s, he paid $550 a year for tuition -- "and that was for the whole year, not just one course." His son, now in his first year at the University of Toronto, pays annual tuition of $5,000.

Prof. Doucet said postsecondary education is a public good and essential for the country's future prosperity, but government funding cuts are making the financing increasingly difficult for students. At Ryerson, he said, more than 70 per cent of students work more than 30 hours a week.

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"As soon as you get a part-time job," said 22-year-old nursing student Claudia Omoreanu, "your quality of education goes down."

Ms. Omoreanu said she is happily free of debt -- so far -- but wishes there was more government investment to put toward new equipment. Some of the equipment the student nurses use for training is so old it's obsolete, she said.

Her classmate, 26-year-old Flannery Fielding, is already $15,000 in debt "and I'm just in second year."

But the Premier, Mr. Harris, said tuition costs aren't out of line.

"The tremendous benefits of a university and a college education far outweigh the cost. And I'll think you'll find that lower tuition has been proven in study after study after study after study to benefit the wealthy, not lower-income classes."

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