National Post recently published a set of graphs looking at tuition levels in Canada, by province and by area of study. The trigger for these new data, of course, was the student crisis in Quebec, which continues to make headlines not just across Canada, but around the world. At the core of students’ fight with their provincial government (a section of the student population, not necessarily a majority of them!) is a proposed tuition fee hike over the next few years.
Most observers of the developments in Quebec, including this author, have indicated that tuition fees for university studies in Quebec are roughly half what students in the rest of Canada pay for their post-secondary education. (For more detailed facts and observations on university tuition in Canada’s overwhelmingly Francophone province click here). According to National Post figures, for a four-year undergraduate degree, the annual tuition is on average $2,519 in Quebec, compared with $5,853 in New Brunswick or $6,640 in Ontario. Only Newfoundland & Labrador – with its $2,649 annual tuition – can somewhat match Quebec’s low tuition levels (at Canadian standards). The tuition fees reflect 2011-2012 data.
The difference between Quebec and other Canadian provinces is even more dramatic though when one looks at tuition levels for specific areas of study. Take medicine, pharmacy and dentistry, for instance. While Quebec students pay $2,711/year for a medical degree, their counterparts in British Columbia pay $15,766 and in Ontario $19,462. A $2,284 annual tuition in pharmacy in Quebec becomes $8,975 in Nova Scotia and $23,144 in Ontario. The figures for dentistry are even more dramatic: while studies in this discipline cost $3,175 yearly in Quebec, they cost $26,406 in Ontario and $32,960 in Saskatchewan – a tenfold gradient!
Equally interesting however, and relevant to the discussion on provincial tuition levels, is the contribution to university operating budgets from (i) government funding, (ii) students, through tuition, and (iii) other sources. The percentage from tuition is one of the lowest in Quebec amongst Canadian provinces (17%). Only Saskatchewan at 16% and Newfoundland & Labrador at 9% have lower contributions – compare those figures with 33% in New Brunswick and 35% in Ontario. The Quebec government’s contribution to university operating budgets, on the other hand, is one of the highest in Canada, at 70% (it stands at 77% in Newfoundland & Labrador). This is in stark contract with government contributions of 49% in New Brunswick and 52% in Ontario.
What all this list of numbers boils down to, in the end, is political choice. There’s no such thing as a free lunch – or free university education, for that matter. In the end, someone needs to pay for the quality education students receive in Canada. This is the crux of the matter and there’s no right or wrong answer: who and to what extent should share that burden? As any Political Science student will tell you, life’s often a series of political struggles and decisions, with the more determined, more articulate and stronger advocates of one position or another being able to impose their preferences upon the rest.
In Quebec’s students vs. government fight both parties seem to be formidable opponents. Both are using compelling arguments for why tuition fees should go up or should rather stay at the current levels (inflation-indexed perhaps) and both are trying to increase their share of supporters. What started as an inconspicuous clash over financial contributions has become, over the past 3+ months, a complex political debate, with ramifications beyond Quebec proper. The choice Quebec makes will inform, if not define, the conversation on university issues in this province (and beyond) for years to come.