Not just dollars and cents -

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.


Not just dollars and cents

  1. So what you are saying is that the reason for Quebec’s low University enrollment, despite low-tuition, is the fact that there is such a huge number of students going to the practically free college system? If 60% of student are going to a free-college, it seems obvious to me that the solution to low enrollment in University (if it needs a solution) is to make University completely free as well.

  2. We also have a 40% highschool dropout rate. (Albeit, many students finish highschool as “adults” (a year or two later), and then go on to CEGEP.) But it doesn’t make things easier..

  3. Yes, in a socialied world, everything should be free. Let the “rich” pay for everthing. Except there aren’t many rich Quebecers left.

  4. Socialism or not – the argument that University should be more expensive to attract more students because people keep using the free college option is completely absurd. If the Quebec model proves anything, it’s that tuition – even the lowest tuition in Canada – proves the most barrier to education. If we want people to go to University or College, we need to follow the Quebec college model and make it free – clearly it’s the model that works for getting people in the door.

  5. …where did anybody argue that university should be more expensive?

    I see stats in the article indicating that lower tuition rates doesn’t necessarily correlate to higher enrollment (as many might assume, student lobby groups for example), and an arguement put forth that it may have more to do with the local economies.

  6. The analysis of the author is just a question of ignorance; for example techical schools in Germany have more prestige than many universities; Universities are free in France (read Bourdieu to understand how it works). Finaly, the real question is how come Community Colleges in English Canada do not have the Cegep’s reputation?

  7. As an Ontarian who attended Bishop’s University, I always believed that Quebec students have it easy in terms of tuition and the grades needed to be admitted into an institution (CEGEP vs OAC). I paid almost twice as much for my education as my Quebecois classmates, and I still saved money vs attending University in Ontario.

    Dear Quebec,

    Stop complaining and please realize that you have things pretty good overall.

  8. Dear VinB,

    If we stop complaining, our fees will go up and we won’t “have things pretty good overall” anymore.