Wednesday, February 7, 2007


So the students are marching again. For lower fees, for a longer freeze, for more federal money.

I was an editor for my CEGEP's (Vanier, if you care) newspaper during the student strikes of 1996-97. We were out for two days in November '96; other CEGEPs, particularly some of the larger francophone CEGEPs in Montreal like Saint-Laurent and de Maisonneuve, were out for something like six weeks. I can't recall how long the universities were out for. But it wasn't fun. And the victories, such as they were, were fleeting.

I remain supportive of the cause, notwithstanding the sincere efforts of guys like Paul Wells and Bob Rae to build a progressive case for raising tuition, provided it's done right. I personally think Wells is barking up the wrong tree by pointing to the lower rate of university participation in Quebec versus Ontario or Nova Scotia as "evidence" that lower tuition doesn't lead to better outcomes in terms of accessing university.

This study, published in 2005 by Statistics Canada, provides a much more nuanced view. Specifically, their findings suggested that "the enrolment gap between students from higher and lower socio-economic backgrounds rose substantially in Ontario [during the late 1990s], where the deregulation of professional programs was more prominent [wheras in] provinces like Quebec and British Columbia, where tuition fees remained stable, no change in the enrolment gap was registered." Of course, the study also found that enrolment increased overall in those programs during that time, meaning Wells' point about higher revenues leading to more spaces is correct. But that enrolment gap, and what it represents in the longer term in terms of the intergenerational perpetuation of poverty, is just not acceptable.

What I find most frustrating in this discussion is the failure by proponents of tuition hikes to properly acknowledge that, in the 21st century, a university degree (or other postsecondary certification) is not what it used to be - or more specifically, that a high school diploma is nowhere near what it used to be in terms of preparing people for entry into the labour market. Such that, absent that additional preparation provided by postsecondary education, an individual is more likely than not to spend his/her adulthood living with precarious employment and poverty, with all the associated social costs.

The Rae report kinda sorta played footise with some of these issues, before coming to the conclusion - based on something other than divine inspiration, I hope - that "the average portion of the operating cost of colleges and universities borne by students (25% for universities and even less for colleges) is not unreasonable." (Page 24)

Sorry, but they ain't sold me yet.

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