Building Bridges between Secondary and Post-secondary Education in Ontario and Quebec

“The Enrichment Mini-Courses Program [EMCP] is a unique annual event in the world of Canadian education.” That’s how its organizers start describing this initiative, which allows secondary students from schools in Ontario and Quebec to attend post-secondary institutions for a week. Each May, about 125 mini-courses are offered to nearly 3,000 students from 21 school boards and private schools by instructors at two universities and one college in the Province on Ontario.

The University of Ottawa, Carleton University and La Cité collégiale host each year secondary students from Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec (grades 8-11 in ON and II-V in QC – 13-16 years of age) for 25-hour courses. The mini-courses are offered “in a variety of disciplines, such as information technology, psychology, engineering, journalism, music and law. They are highly interactive; they combine brief presentations, practical exercises, laboratory exercises, group discussions and field expeditions; and they provide an unforgettable learning experience!”

The Desmarais building at the University of Ot...

The Desmarais building at the University of Ottawa in Ottawa, Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The University of Ottawa, for instance, is expecting approximately 1,800 students in 2013 and will offer approximately 92 courses (48 in English and 44 in French). Carleton offers courses in English, while La Cité collégiale offers courses in French. Staff and graduate students at these post-secondary institutions are invited each year to submit proposals for mini-courses and are reminded that course “titles and descriptions must be ‘appealing’ to students of the levels [they] wish to reach.”

The students selected need to demonstrate excellent academic performance, yet student “placement is based on a random computerized process that occurs once all the application forms are received. Consequently, the first come – first serve principle does not apply.” Only one course is assigned per student, which they will attend one week long. The course themes are very diverse and cover a wide range of interests.

2012 course titles included: “The F–‐word: Exploring Feminism in Society,” “The Philosopher’s Stone: What Harry Potter, Clark Kent, Buffy, and Captain Kirk Can Teach Us about Philosophy,” “Bippity-Boppity-What? Jumping Down the Rabbit Hole of Classic Disney Movies” (Carleton), “The Holocaust and Europe’s Jews,” “Do You Want Kant and Aristotle as Your Facebook Friends?,” “Relationships and Sexuality 101” (Ottawa), “Découvrir l’animation 3D!” and “L’art culinaire et la gestion hôtelière : un univers savoureux” (La Cité Collégiale).

The program represents an excellent bridge between the secondary and post-secondary worlds in Canada’s two largest provinces. It is equally an investment in post-secondary education and an open invitation to university/college studies from the three post-secondary organizations involved. The latter usually encourage their student guests to take campus tours and explore in more detail their academic offerings.

Establishing such linkages early in a student’s high-school life potentially raises his/her interest in attending university/college upon graduation and increases their likelihood of pursuing post-secondary studies. One of the unintended side effects of the program is that it also assists graduate students and other junior faculty members who act as EMCP instructors in gaining meaningful teaching experience.

EMCP is not a unique program in North America (see Stanford’s High School Summer College and others); other universities and colleges have similar initiatives. This program is however one of Canada’s proven successes – over 50,000 secondary students used it since its inception, in 1981 – and constitutes a model for establishing similar linkages in other parts of the country.

(More information on the Enrichment Mini-Courses Program can be found here.)

Campus Visit: Université Laval, Quebec City

Spring is a great time to visit Université Laval, North America`s oldest French-language post-secondary institution. A short drive or bus ride west from Vieux Québec – the city`s renowned historic neighbourhood – Laval is welcoming you with its dozens of modern buildings, large green spaces, botanical gardens, sports fields – and a multi-cultural student population. (In Quebec`s typically cold winters, students can walk between campus buildings through a complex network of underground pedestrian tunnels, over five km long).

Flag of Laval University, Quebec City. Françai...

Flag of Laval University, Quebec City. Français : Drapeau de l’Université Laval, Québec. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

About 40,000 undergraduate and graduate students call Laval their university. With its 18 faculties and schools – ranging from dentistry to forestry to theology – U. Laval is an appealing and relatively accessible choice for many French-speaking persons from the Province of Quebec (the vast majority of them), the rest of Canada, and around the world.

Well-known for its Rouge-et-Or varsity sports, Laval`s football team (men) is particularly celebrated for having won the most Vanier Cups (the championship of Canadian Interuniversity Sport football): six times, a tie with U. of Western Ontario Mustangs. Laval has one of Canada`s largest sports complexes and students participate in various sporting and non-athletic competitions, such as Concrete Canoe, International Tractor and Force Avenir.

400+ academic programs (roughly half undergraduate and half graduate), hundreds of distance learning courses, and three education profiles (entrepreneurial, cooperative, and international) make U. Laval an institution catering to a wide range of student needs. This is one of its strongest features – and perhaps its Achilles’ heel as well.

In the latest (2012) Maclean`s ranking Laval takes the 12th spot in Canadian “medical and doctoral” universities (a category of post-secondary institutions offering a broad range of research and doctoral programs, including medical schools). In the national reputational ranking Laval places 18th (this ranking combines all medical doctoral, comprehensive, and primarily undergraduate universities in Canada). In its category, Laval scores 8th on total research dollars (a plus repeatedly emphasized by university officials) and 10th on student awards.

Laval`s vision is “to become one of the best universities in the world.” Its model, however, to “[give] all members of its community the chance to grow, develop their potential, and establish themselves in an [...] institutional setting” may prevent it from achieving that very worthy goal. Laval is one of Quebec`s better and larger post-secondary institutions – notable alumni include three Prime Ministers of Canada and seven provincial Premiers – but its all-encompassing community mandate is what seems to be holding it back.

To truly become a top Canadian and world university, Laval will need to revisit fundamental principles – to move away from a Quebec-centred mission and promote more forcefully its many strengths on the national and international post-secondary education market. It will also need to focus more strategically on a fewer number of academic specializations, closely coordinated with its research programs.

Until this transformation happens, Laval may not be one of the world`s leading universities – a Caltech, Harvard or Stanford – but it definitely continues to be an attractive choice for Québécois and international Francophone students. In its French-speaking niche, Laval offers rich educational options in a lovely (albeit somewhat cold) city. Tip: enjoy the sun and the warm weather while it lasts – you`ll notice, the locals follow this rule religiously.

Mind the Gap: Quebec’s Post-Secondary Education Woes

As this post is written while Quebec students’ “strikes” are still occurring – disrupting not only regular education processes but also the province’s already tumultuous political life – I may be tempted to weigh in and provide my views on the protest itself. I won’t and I will not address here issues of morality, social justice, agency, the role of universities (and CEGEPs) in society, taxation and representation. There are countless voices out there, at this moment, doing precisely that – from the militant student group CLASSE to Globe and Mail and National Post editorialists.

The trigger for this sudden interest in Quebec’s higher education is Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s decision to raise tuition fees over the next five years by about 75 per cent. The reaction from a sizable section of the provincial student population has been swift and, in some cases, violent – student “strikes” led to courses being cancelled, institutions being shut down, hundreds of arrests and confrontations with police, for the past three months. Except for op-ed pieces in national newspapers and brief TV reports, the reaction has been muted in ROC (the rest of Canada).

What I will attempt to provide however are some facts and observations about university tuition in Canada’s overwhelmingly francophone province. This is the main point of contention, which pitted the government against students. Largely frozen for decades, university tuition in Quebec is the lowest in Canada (and, arguably, in the whole of Canada and the United States). While tuition fees vary from university to university and from program to program, as a rough guide they are half what students in the rest of Canada pay for their post-secondary education.

The provincial government (as other governments as well, elsewhere) is heavily subsidizing university studies. For example, currently, tuition can be as low as $2,701 at Université de Sherbrooke and $2,781 at Université Laval in Quebec City, for provincial students. At McGill University in Montreal, one of Canada’s best schools, the tuition fees are $3,727, slightly more than half what students in neighbouring Ontario pay for their studies.

Why this does not lead to a huge influx of students from ROC is unsurprising: the provincial government only subsidizes education at this rate for Quebec residents (and a few other selected categories). Out-of-province students pay higher tuition, similar to (or higher than) what they would pay in their home province – e.g., $6,391 at Sherbrooke, $6,471 at Laval and $7,417 at McGill.

Tuition fees for out-of-country (international) students, everywhere in Canada, are higher than for Canadian students. For arts and science programs in 2011-2012, international student tuition averaged $16,426 at Sherbrooke, $16,728 at Laval and $20,420 at McGill. To put things in context, international student tuition can be as low as $9,006 at Moncton U. (New Brunswick), $9,010 at Memorial U. (Newfoundland) or $11,726 at University of Lethbridge (Alberta).

The tuition fees for Quebec residents haven’t even been indexed for inflation for several decades. Even with the proposed 75% increase, the fees would still be some of the lowest in Canada (an argument that proponents of “free” education may not be willing to entertain). A recent analysis in Maclean’s magazine indicated that “[h]aving been in effect for 32 of the past 43 years, the tuition freeze has been as enduring as it is economical. As a result, students today are getting an even better bargain than their forebears.”

Of course, whenever money is involved, especially when that translates into tuition hikes, changes are bound to lead to political disagreements. As long as the confrontation takes places in the appropriate fora – legislatures, university boards or negotiation committees – healthy debates are beneficial to the overall state of the education system.

Whatever the outcome of the current student protests will be – and one hopes a compromise will be reached soon – this crisis highlights the existence of a different paradigm on access to post-secondary education. Quebec’s multi-layered approach to charging tuition fees if being tested in 2012 and early indications point to developments that will slowly close the gap between the Quebec model and practices in the rest of Canada.

Time will tell if Quebec will maintain a distinct post-secondary system and if the gap in this sector will gradually diminish between “la belle province” and its Canadian counterparts. Either way, the current status quo will likely prove to be unsustainable.