Tens of thousands of students filled the streets of Montreal Thursday in a mass protest against a planned hike in tuition fees that they say will undermine Quebec's long-standing commitment to keeping university education accessible to people of all incomes.
The 75 per cent increase in post-secondary education tuition fees was included in the budget the Liberal government of Premier Jean Charest tabled Tuesday but has been anticipated for some time and had already been forecast in the 2011 budget.
The increase will see fees for Quebec residents rise by $325 a year for five years, starting in the 2012-13 academic year and continuing until 2016-2017.
(Compare tuition fees across the country.)
Joël Pedneault, vice-president of external affairs for the Students' Society of McGill University in Montreal, is an active member of Quebec's student movement and is helping co-ordinate some of the activities taking place Thursday.
He says the biggest obstacle students currently face in their fight against fee hikes is getting the government to open lines of communication with the various groups protesting the increase.
"Ideally, we are striving for tuition fee reductions and, possibly, free education; that has historically been the demand of the Quebec student movement," said Pedneault.
Strikes having little effect
Even though the student groups hope the size of Thursday's demonstration is enough to get the attention of the Quebec government, starting a two-way conversation on the issues may take some time.
More than 100,000 students at several Quebec universities and CEGEPs, the colleges Quebec students attend for two years before entering university, have stopped attending class since mid-February. But the walk-outs, which continue to gain momentum, with student associations at more and more schools taking strike votes as the weeks progress, have done little to sway the government, which has urged universities to ignore them and continue business as usual.
Do you think tuition fees are fair across Canada? Take our survey.
"If the government does not agree to speak with us, then the strike will continue, and after six, seven or eight weeks of student protesting, the universities have to start making arrangements for prolonging the semester, and it becomes a very costly decision," said Pedneault.
The annual $325 hike will result in an overall increase of $1,625 for Quebec students, who pay the lowest post-secondary education tuition in the country (see the chart comparing Canadian tuition rates at the bottom of this story). Currently, a year's tuition at a Quebec university costs on average $2,519 (when fees for all disciplines are averaged), according to Statistics Canada figures.
The second-lowest tuition fees in the country are in Newfoundland and Labrador, at an average of $2,649 per year.
A post-secondary education in Ontario is the most costly in the country. Tuition fees in the province have increased from an average of $5,388 to $6,640 in the past four years, a 23 per cent increase for the more than 700,000 full-time post-secondary students in Ontario.
Quebec has uniquely accessible system
Roxanne Dubois, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, a nationwide organization representing university students, says the protests in Quebec are warranted given that the fee increases could threaten the province's unique system of post-secondary education, which prides itself on its accessibility to students of all income levels.
"They are fighting to protect one of the most successful systems of post-secondary education we have in the country," Dubois said. "We are lucky enough to have a model that we can point to as something that recognizes that education should be something that should be available to everyone, regardless your social status."
Dubois says it doesn't make sense to jeopardize Quebec's model in order to bring tuition in line with universities in other provinces.
"The Quebec government is saying it must increase tuition fees to 'catch up' to other provinces and keep the quality of education at the expected standard," Dubois said. "This is backwards, because Quebec is one of the only provinces that has made it a priority to provide accessible education to its students and has had very good outcomes because of it."
Students outside Quebec might look at the province's low tuition costs and question whether the planned hike is really so unreasonable. However, a 75 per cent increase is a drastic jump for a province that has long enjoyed low tuition costs and had a freeze on tuition from 1994 to 2007, when the Charest government introduced a five-year tuition hike of $100 per year.
"If the tuition fees increases that are proposed go ahead, Quebec's tuition fees will no longer be the lowest in Canada … They will be higher than those in Manitoba and Newfoundland," said Pedneault.
Where the money will go
The tuition increase is part of the Quebec government's university funding plan, which will see a total of $850 million committed to university education by 2016-17, $320 million to maintain current operations and $530 million in additional funding. Tuition revenue makes up about 31 per cent of the $850 million.
"Some of the additional money will be used to help the university with research and another part will be returned to the students through financial aid," said Ministry of Education spokesperson Esther Chouinard.
According to the government plan, 35 per cent of the tuition increase will go toward student financial aid.
The government has set limits on how universities can spend the $530 million in new funding: 65 to 85 per cent is to go toward improving the quality of teaching and research, 10 to 20 per cent is to be used to make Quebec universities more competitive with their counterparts in other parts of Canada and abroad, and five to 15 per cent is to be used to improve administration and management.
Universities will also have to sign annual performance agreements demonstrating that they have distributed funding according to these targets.
Fee hikes needed, says government
Compared to the rest of the country, even with the fee increase, Quebec tuition fees in 2016-2017 will still be lower than those paid by students in seven Canadian provinces in 2009-2010.
The government insists the fee increases are in the best interests of students and will improve the quality of the province's universities. It says the fee hikes are a response to university administrators' complaints about underfunding and rising deficits. The Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec, the organization that represents university rectors and presidents, has said Quebec's universities are underfunded by $620 million, according to 2010 figures.
But students say any benefits that might materialize from tuition hikes won't be felt until years down the line.
According to Pedneault, the students who will be protesting Thursday are concerned about the effects the cuts will have right now.
"If governments make the decision to increase fees on education, then they are making the decision to cut people's standard of living, and that has really profound repercussions on people's ability to make choices that make sense for them today."