Police officers yesterday denied more than a dozen College of The Bahamas (COB) students entry into the House of Assembly.
Those 15 students, who were led by COB Union of Students President (COBUS) Ernesto Williams, were forced to wait behind a barricade for more than four hours in an effort to speak with Prime Minister Perry Christie.
Around 9:15 a.m. the students spoke briefly with Assistant Commissioner Leon Bethel, who informed them that they could not enter the building because of a security concern.
"We have to protect our government," Bethel told reporters. "We have to protect our institution. That is what you put us here for as members of the public. You want us to maintain law and order and that is why we are here."
The prime minister arrived around 10:30 a.m. and was escorted into the House as students looked on.
Deandra Cartwright, COBUS presidential advisor, said the students had no intention of disrupting House proceedings, but simply wanted to sit and observe.
"We came with no intent to protest," she told reporters.
"We called in, got the protocol, as in to how to dress, how to act and what not. We have been here before.
"...I'm trying to figure out why now, of all days, we can't sit in on a session of the House. Or is it that the members of Parliament, those who we elected to power, do not want to hear what the young people are saying about our future in tertiary education?"
Students have expressed outrage over fee increases at the college, which were approved by the council on April 10 and announced by COB on Monday.
Beginning this fall, fees for parking, the use of the library and technology will increase; those fees will be reduced by 50 percent during the summer semester, COB confirmed.
A new $100 capital facility development fee will take effect in January of next year. The full fee will be levied in the fall and spring.
When Parliament recessed for lunch, Christie engaged the group of students - the barricade separating both sides - and told them the government was not aware of the fee increases.
"The Government of The Bahamas had no idea what you are talking about - none," Christie said.
"It is inconceivable to me that I would engage in any hostile act against college students without first talking to them, and therefore to me a big storm was created in a teacup, and I don't understand what it is all about.
"Most certainly no one has spoken to me. I had to come in this morning and ask my minister of state for finance (Michael Halkitis), 'Do you know what they are talking about?' I then went outside the House while it was going on and called the minister of education (Jerome Fitzgerald) and asked him if he knows what it was about, and he said the first time he had heard about it [was when] he was traveling and he saw it in the papers."
Williams told the prime minister the student union was informed that the council met with Ministry of Finance officials last Thursday.
Christie responded that he was not aware of any such meeting.
"I've just asked the minister of state for finance to brief me and he just gave me a document," he said.
"The point I'm making is that there is a right way of doing things and you have to know what that right way is. Only because I am who I am, I'm over here talking to you now. But the right way is not meeting me here in a public place like this to discuss the matters of the college."
The group of students said they understood the financial constraints of the government, but that does not excuse the council from placing a further burden on students.
"We understand the economic times that we are in. However, we are not involved in the decision making process with these fees that affect us currently as students and the future students of the college," Cartwright said.
"We have an issue with that, particularly when these fees have no justification."
Christie said it was not his intention to inflict any hardship on students.
He assured them that Fitzgerald would contact them before the end of the day to set up a meeting.
Meanwhile, Free National Movement (FNM) Leader Dr. Hubert Minnis said the Opposition was appalled that students were denied entry to the House, and has requested Speaker of the House Dr. Kendal Major to launch an investigation into the matter.
"How could students be denied entrance into their own Parliament, to see their own representative?" Minnis said. "When I asked the police why the students were denied entry, I was told their intelligence suggested the students would posed a security risk.
"This is grossly wrong and we have asked for an immediate investigation."
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