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.