Clearly, 1969 was a great year to be going to university in Quebec. The province was in the process of detaching itself from its church-dominated past, priming the demand for an educated class. Prospective university students could also take heart in knowing that, because of a tuition freeze that year, they would pay $500 a year throughout their studies. Having 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. A Quebec resident attending university today pays $1,968 a year—or just $311 in 1969 dollars. And as the months-long student boycott of universities across the province shows, low tuition is something of a sacred cow here, like cheap electricity and beer at the dépanneur. The student movement says the provincial government’s plans to increase tuition to $3,793 will hinder access to higher education.
Yet, as enduring as it has been, the tuition freeze has done little to increase university enrolment in the province. According to a study published by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, about 30 per cent of Quebec’s young people go to university, six percentage points below the Canadian average and more than 20 percentage points behind Atlantic Canada, where the average tuition is nearly three times that in Quebec. For Ross Finnie, the University of Ottawa economics professor and author of the study, part of the problem of low university enrolment is rooted in Quebec’s history. According to the study, young people are more likely to go to university if their parents did the same, regardless of family income; in Quebec, there are simply fewer university-trained parents. “The intergenerational transition is the single most important factor in determining who goes to college and university,” Finnie says. In Quebec, “there’s less understanding of the benefits of going to university. There’s no appreciation that it’s an investment.” The problem apparently begins before university; Quebec has one of the highest high-school dropout rates in the country. Among male Quebec francophones, for whom the problem is particularly acute, one in four drops out of high school before completion, according to education ministry statistics. “We find in our data that male francophones in Quebec, but not outside Quebec, are a group at risk with respect to high secondary-school dropout rates and low education attainment,” Finnie says.
“It’s kind of ironic,” he adds. “The student groups are committed to social justice, yet they reduce the problem to simple affordability when it’s so much more complex. There’s not much evidence that people aren’t going to university because of financial considerations.”
There are bright spots for Quebec. As in the rest of the country, high-school dropout rates have slowly but steadily fallen over the past decade. Completion rates are higher than the Canadian average among students who do go to university. As well, attendance rates for CEGEPs, Quebec’s two- or three-year post-secondary college system, are relatively high. Yet when it comes to getting more rear ends into university classes, it seems Quebec’s 40-year experiment with low tuition fees has hardly been the success that certain striking university students would like to think.