One word keeps popping up at Quebec students' noisy, colourful demonstrations against a planned university tuition hike:  accessibility.

Student groups say their ability to pay for their education is partly based on Quebec's cheap tuition and raising rates would certainly bar poorer students from attending.

'You want the best students and not just the ones who can afford it.'—Martine Desjardins

So they've jammed the streets, blocked bridges and even demonstrated near  the home of Premier Jean Charest to try to undo a provincial government plan to raise university tuition rates by 75 per cent or $1,625 over the next five years. The increase would bring the rate to about $3,800, still one of the lowest in the country. 

While the government sees a need to hike tuition fees, and some observers say money is not the biggest obstacle to post-secondary enrolment, the student leaders remain adamant the proposed increases are unfair and will keep worthy young people out of the classroom. 

"You want the best students and not just the ones who can afford it," says Martine Desjardins, president of the Quebec Federation of University Students. 

She says there was a drop in medical school enrolment from the outlying regions within Quebec during the last tuition hike in 1991 and the same thing could happen again.

Roxanne Dubois, the national chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, has equally strong words about accessibility.

"Tuition fees are much too high in Canada and they act as the main barrier preventing young people from pursuing their post-secondary education."

Money not the main obstacle

Not true, says Ross Finnie, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and one of the co-authors of a wide-ranging study comparing participation in post-secondary education in Ontario to other regions.

'Those who want to go and have the means will go.'—Ross Finnie

"Those who want to go and have the means will go," he said in an interview.

While family income is an important factor in who goes on to post-secondary education, Finnie suggests lack of money is not the main obstacle for most students. It's something more subtle.

"It's generally the underlying cultural attitude toward the importance of higher education," he says.

"Education of the parents is one of the key pieces of evidence that came along in the last half dozen years" to predict who continues on to post-secondary education.

Bad grades, other plans and an inability to see the merit of continuing education all contribute to disinterest before some students even think about the cost.

"Student financial aid isn't perfect but by and large ensures accessibility for those who would otherwise face financial barriers," Finnie says.

Several other institutions, including the University of Saskatchewan, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and the Montreal Economic Institute (MEI) have come to similar conclusions about enrolment, based on available data. 

Enrolment rise after hike

The MEI goes further. A 2004 paper by economist Norma Kozhaya states that university enrolment continued to rise in Quebec even after a brief hike in tuition rates in 1991-92. 

In fact, rising tuition costs haven’t deterred students from enrolling in universities across the country.

Undergraduate enrolment overall surpassed the million-student mark in September 2011, according to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, a three per cent increase from 2010. There was also a 3.2 per cent increase in full-time graduate student attendance.

Ontario and Saskatchewan, which both have high university tuitions, at $6,640 and $5,601 respectively, still see a record number of students. Saskatchewan’s enrolment in 2010 was up two per cent. Ontario’s enrolment increased 2.7 per cent in 2009.  

A 2009 presentation made by Ian D. Clark, professor of public policy at the University of Toronto about the pressures of university financing, highlighted the boom in Ontario.

"Enrolment in Ontario's universities, measured in full-time equivalents (FTEs), has grown from fewer than 100,000 in the late 1960s to almost 400,000 today. Over the last four decades, university enrolment has increased faster in Ontario, and particularly in the Greater Toronto Area, than in almost any other part of North America."

Not much choice

But Dubois says a modern economy doesn't give students much choice, even in the face of daunting debt.

"Of course they’re going to university," she says. 

"Seventy per cent of the jobs demand a university or post-secondary education. We know that if we don't go, we won’t have a shot at getting a decent job."

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Quebec Premier Jean Charest has said his government's tuition plan is a reasonable and equitable way to keep universities competitive. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

But in Quebec, university enrolment remains lower than the national average, in spite of cheap tuition.

In that province in 2006, about 30 per cent of young people were enrolled in university by the time they were 21, giving Quebec the lowest level of all the provinces, according to Finnie's study. By contrast, about 51 per cent of young people in Atlantic Canada attended university by the time they were 21. In Ontario, that rate was about 46 per cent.

In Quebec, an additional 40 per cent of students choose not to go any higher than CÉGEP, the province’s unique college system, which has minimal cost.    

The Montreal Economic Institute, a think-tank recently targeted by vandals over its pro-tuition hike stance, has said for years that fees must go up to help Quebec’s under-funded universities or the province risks compromising the quality of its education. 

This kind of talk brings a howl from student leaders, who say money meant for the university system is being diverted or mismanaged and now they’re being asked to pony up.

Culture of education

Desjardins also believes tuition must remain low because Quebec is still building a culture of education.

She points to the high drop-out rate among high school students as evidence of this. The Quebec government says 30 per cent of boys and 20 per cent of girls drop out of school before they get a high school diploma. In poorer areas, the overall figure rises to 35 per cent.

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Police clash with students during a demonstration in Montreal on March 7, 2012. (Marie-Esperance Cerda/Canadian Press)

There is other evidence that many Quebeckers don't seem committed to educating their youth. An IPSOS REID poll cited in a government review on access to education in 2005 found that only 53 per cent of Quebeckers believed it was important for the system to prepare young people for CÉGEP or university. That number was 83 per cent among the rest of Canadians. 

Not every student supports the protests. Some are keeping their heads down and attending classes, and public opinion is split over the tuition hikes. 

But Desjardins and tens of thousands of CÉGEP and university students fight on, believing the protests will force the government to back down. It’s worked before. They hope it works again.