Not just dollars and cents

Why Quebec’s low tuition hasn’t led to high university enrolment

By 2012 between 6,000 and 13,000 Quebecers will have been prevented from going to university by a $500 increase in tuition, according to one of the province’s largest student lobby groups (their numbers come from a survey commissioned by the Quebec government). But a closer look at university participation rates and tuition fees across the country shows that the relationship between the cost of a university education and the percentage of people who attend isn’t quite so cut and dry.

Last Thursday, over 300 students, mostly from the Université du Québec à Montréal, protested a series of consultations which are set to take place between the provincial government and “education partners,” including students. The protest was organized by the Association pour une solidarité syndicale, which represents over 40,000 students across the province.

These students are opposed to the consultation process because the government has already announced their intention to raise tuition in 2012. Tuition rates in the province have been increasing by $50 per semester for Quebec residents, and $100 per semester for out of province students, since 2007 when the Charest government partially thawed the province’s tuition freeze, in place since 1994. In total tuition has risen $500 over five years for Quebec residents and $1,000 for out-of-province students. While this protest was relatively small compared to the protests in 2007, it’s pretty safe to say that these protests will grow as the 2012 increase approaches.

Here in Quebec, which has Canada’s lowest tuition rates (at least for Quebec residents) the participation rate is also one of the lowest in the country. According to 2005 numbers from Statistics Canada, the most recent complete numbers available, among people aged 24-26, 38 per cent have attended university.

Newfoundland has slightly higher tuition than Quebec but that province’s participation rate — the highest in the country — is 10 per cent higher than Quebec’s.

Nova Scotia, where university enrolment increased by over three per cent this fall (according to the Association of Atlantic Universities), has the second highest participation rate in the country despite their tuition being the second highest. Ontario, which has the highest tuition fees among the provinces, has a higher participation rate than Quebec and despite large tuition increases over the past several years, Ontario universities had a record number of applications this year.

In Alberta, where tuition rates are comparable to the national average, participation is the lowest.

It seems that provincial economies and the demands of the job market have far more to do with participation rates than tuition fees. In Atlantic Canada, with the decline of the fishery and mining sectors and in Ontario, with the decline of the manufacturing sector, jobs that existed a generation ago — and didn’t require a university education — are gone. While in Alberta the oil industry is still going strong.

The counter-intuitive difference between participation rates in Quebec and provinces where tuition is much higher may also have to do with the unique nature of Quebec’s education system. Quebec students graduate from high school in grade 11 and must attend two years of CEGEP (or go to a private college) before attending university. The CEGEP/college system has a participation rate of over 60 per cent — giving Quebec the highest college participation rate in the country.

While the system was created to encourage university participation it may be having the opposite effect, with CEGEPs also offering three-year technical degrees,  it is more appealing for some students to do one more year of CEGEP and graduate with a skilled trade rather than going to university, and with the cost at CEGEPs being slightly over $100 per semester it’s certainly the cheapest and fastest way to get into the workforce.