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Accessible Education in Quebec: A Societal Choice

by Sameer Zuberi

Since the beginning of 2012, I've been sporting a red felt square. Today, it's quite the fashion statement in Quebec. But it was only last week that I noticed how worn my red square had become. After several months, it's now frayed at the edges with bumps starting to appear.

Why are red felt squares in such vogue? The recent provincial budget in Quebec is to be credited for this. In it the provincial Liberals introduced a 75 per cent tuition hike, where the cost of university education will increase from the current average of $2,500 to $4,125. This is after a 30 per cent increase since 2007-2008.

But anyone who has attended a post-secondary institution knows that the cost of education is much more than simply tuition. When you consider books, transportation, and sometimes housing, it's clear costs quickly balloon. In real dollar terms, McGill's admissions department says that students living at home need at least $4,800 a year. Those living alone should budget between $16,500 and 20,000 a year. And this doesn't factor in the planned fee increase.

In response to the tuition hike, there are currently an estimated 180,000 Quebec students on strike and counting. This includes 14,500 students between McGill and Concordia who are not attending class, and another 20,000 from Université de Montreal and Université de Québec à Montréal respectively. However, it's not simply students who are advocates of accessible education -- teachers, young parents and citizens of all walks of life are too. A recent Leger Marketing poll uncovered that 45 per cent of Quebecers favour the position of students over that of the government.

At stake is more than a mere tuition increase, but the very concept of accessible education.

When we read about tuition in Quebec, we're often reminded that it is the lowest in Canada. (Newfoundland and Labrador's tuition rate is a close second at $2,650 per year.) But we forget to mention that Quebecers pay the highest taxes after Nova Scotia and PEI, and deserve a break when it comes to social programs. Also, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives recently uncovered that university grads, over the course of their careers, pay back provincial subsidies to education many times over. In B.C., a four-year undergrad degree costs taxpayers $20,000. However, university-educated women contribute $106,000 more to the public purse, when compared to peers with only a high school diploma. British Columbia men pay back $159,000 more because of their university education.

We also don't mention that higher tuition historically leads to lower participation rates. According to Quebec's Ministry of Education, an estimated 6,000 to 13,000 students stopped attending university because of the $100-per-year hikes between 2007 and 2012. University of California researchers have found enrolment rates dropped among low-income students and minorities due to tuition increases.

We often forget the real reason why our tuition is the lowest nationally. It's because Quebecers have made a societal choice to keep education accessible to all, regardless of income. This societal choice is something we as Quebecers should be proud of, and defend.

Outside of a get-rich-quick scheme, post-secondary education remains the most reliable method of achieving social mobility and a better standard of living. For low-income households, it is the surest ticket to breaking inter-generational poverty. Today, households with immigrant roots still understand this. This is the reason why newly landed immigrants place so much value on academic excellence and achievement. Education is seen as the best way of securing a better future.

What happens when, due to lack of resources, we remove the ability of citizens to educate themselves? To answer this, we only need to look at our neighbours to the south.

It's a popular belief that the U.S. has prohibitively high education rates, and that Quebec's tuition is, by comparison, dirt cheap. If we consider the least costly university degrees available in the U.S., the tale of where Quebec is headed is much clearer. According to America's College Board, in 1988 a year's tuition at a public university cost $2,800 on average. By 2008, that same year of schooling increased by 130 per cent to $6,500.

The societal cost of the tuition increase in America was the death of accessible education. The Internet is rife with reporting and analysis on the College Board's numbers. Titles like "Rising college costs price out middle class," which appeared in CNNMoney, are quite telling. They indicate that in America, a seemingly modest yearly tuition of $6,500, not only bars the poor and disenfranchised from education, but middle class kids too.

The example south of the border begs the question: what sort of society do Quebecers want to create? Do Quebecers want to maintain a proud tradition of accessible education, where all have the chance to educate themselves? Or does the province want to limit opportunities so that only some can attend university and secure a promising future?

On these issues, the jury's out. One thing is certain though, the Quebec budget, as it now stands, is an affront to the cherished value of accessible education. If left unchanged, red felt squares will continue to become increasingly popular on Quebec's streets and may soon debut in the fashion world.

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Sameer Zuberi (Sameer Zuberi)
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