What makes Quebec students 'distinct'?

While Quebec students say the raging tuition debate and massive protests are about accessibility to education, its roots could also lie in the collective psyche of the province.
Students protest against tuition fee hikes in front of the Education Ministry office on April 26 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Outside Quebec, it can be hard to understand why students protesting university tuition fee hikes are so outraged.

After all, even if the planned increase comes to fruition in five years, the annual cost will still only be about $3,800, one of the lowest rates in Canada.

While students have said the debate is about accessibility — and to what extent a tuition increase would keep worthy young Quebecers out of the classroom — its roots could also lie in the collective psyche of the province.

Students demonstrate against tuition hikes on April 4 in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

"A 65 per cent increase is not just a price change," says Pierre Martin, a political science professor at the University of Montreal.

"It's a complete change of philosophy and their reaction is very understandable."

Martin sees the conflict linked to an unrealized promise of Quebec's Quiet Revolution of the 1960s: free post-secondary tuition.

"That's the norm that people compare themselves to and that's part of the reason tuition fees remained so low in Quebec for such a long time, because whenever the thought of raising them came to public debate, it was not in the minds of most people."

Another planet

Martin suggests that any comparison between Quebec university students and their counterparts elsewhere in Canada carries little weight with the young people who have filled the streets for the past several weeks.

"For the vast majority of Quebec students, Canadian universities might just as well be on some other planet. They're just not in their world. And their world is one defined by their own situation and also somewhat by the ideals of the Quiet Revolution."

When Martin looks at the Quebec post-secondary system, he sees it as "distinct," a word that can send constitutional shivers down the spine in some Canadian quarters.

He's not put off by the term, however.

"There's nothing particularly offensive in calling the Quebec system of higher education distinct. It's just an objective fact," he says, pointing to issues of language, culture and cost that differentiate it from the post-secondary systems elsewhere in the country.

Some observers have suggested that the Quebec students — whose protests have ranged from disrupting traffic to trashing the education minister's Montreal office — need to get a bit of perspective.

Writing in the Montreal Gazette, L. Ian MacDonald, editor in chief of Policy Options, a magazine published by the Institute for Research on Public Policy, wondered why Quebec university students who only pay about 10 per cent of the cost of their classes don't know how good they have it.

Additionally, he suggested, the current education system in Quebec doesn't necessarily represent an ideal.

"Does lower tuition produce outcomes in the way of higher participation and graduation rates?" he asked. "Nope. Six provinces have a higher graduation rate, as McGill [University] principal Heather Munroe-Blum and others have noted."

'Straw that broke the camel's back'

Martin says the projected five-year, $1,625-hike proposed by Premier Jean Charest's Liberal government was the "straw that broke the camel's back" for students who felt that it would extend tuition costs beyond what they thought they could pay on their own. A cultural goal of "self-reliance" has evolved over the years when tuition was low.

"It’s a bit more than what students are willing to accept, given again that general perception that they themselves should be able to make that expenditure out of their current revenues or capacity to pay."

Quebec Premier Jean Charest answers reporters' questions on the conflict with students over tuition hikes on April 26, in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Martin himself remembers trying to live up to that goal of self-reliance, covering the costs of his first year of university, and ending the year broke and hitchhiking home to his parents.

That self-reliance wasn't a point of pride.

"It's just a matter of that's what was expected. That's what people do when the price is at a level that makes it possible. If it cost $40,000 a year to go to university, what's the point of working through the summer and making $4,000? It just doesn't compute. It's just a drop in the bucket."

At the base of the debate in Quebec, Martin says, is a choice or contrast between two philosophies of education.

"One is a philosophy that higher education is a public good, something that society organizes and buys itself, pays for the purpose of the social good. So it's a collective good that exists for the benefit of everyone." (Free tuition would fall in this category.)

The other philosophy, he says, "corresponds to a reality [that] higher education is also seen as an investment that an individual makes in order to achieve higher income and a larger income stream in the future." (Pay your own way falls in this category.)

No easy answer

There's no good or best answer in the debate, Martin says.

"It's one that should be made by political authorities on the basis of some sort of mandate from voters."

Some would suggest that Quebec voters have already weighed in on the issue: after all, they elected the government that's proposing the hike, and polls are finding that the majority of Quebecers are behind the Liberals.

But Martin says those views are largely a reaction to the high-profile student demonstrations that have been in some instances marked by violence, something he says is unfortunate, because it doesn't represent the vast majority of students who aren't making trouble.

Of course, not all students are on strike.

"There's a large degree of decentralized autonomy in the way students organize their political decisions," says Martin.

"There's a very lively debate among students as to what is the proper course of action, what is acceptable in terms of protest."

If history is any indication, it won't be resolved any time soon.


Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.