Provincial culture may be standing in the way of lower tuition

Montreal citizens protest Bill 78 in June of 2012.
Montreal citizens protest Bill 78 in June of 2012.

Later this month, the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students (APUS) will be holding a panel discussion on the future of free education at the postsecondary level. This panel takes an extremely progressive stance, but that is not surprising as exorbitant tuition fees have become a hot topic on campuses, although not necessarily in Canadian politics.

Tuition can play a much more significant role in provincial campaigns, because the provinces take on the brunt of the responsibility for education funding and implementation. The kicker is that it really depends on which province that is. Believe me, Ontario gets the short end of it.

The UTSU, and any student who has looked at the numbers, will be quick to tell you that tuition fees in Ontario are the highest in Canada, and they are also the fastest-growing. They have ballooned over the past decade to over $7,500. In 2005, it was just under $5,000, and the average Ontario student pays $1,000 more in tuition than the second most-expensive province (Saskatchewan).

Our system has a rather large variance in tuition fees from province to province, and the provinces with the two lowest tuition rates are Québec and Newfoundland, who both average around $2,500 for domestic students. Explaining this difference is complex from a political perspective—I could bore you for hours comparing Ontario and Québec Liberals, but the differences are deeper than partisan politics: they are historical and societal in nature.

Québec as a colony existed as an outpost of the French state, maintaining a highly Catholic societal structure that put collective piety over individual material gains. Even after the takeover of the British, French civil law was maintained, which ensured that these values would survive for centuries. This was allowed in exchange for English control of financial and political institutions.

Québec’s education was controlled by the Catholic church until the early 1960s. When the state secularized education, there was an explosion of state involvement unique only to Québec. The province heavily involved itself in the crafting of a new, secular French identity. They established modern universities, and pushed massive state investment to get French-speaking students through this new, modern education system. As a result, Québec began churning out thousands of young, non-religious, and educated French-speaking graduates who had been raised in a state that held them in high standing—after all, this is also the base of the modern separatist movement.

That new identity of the Québécois is tied to state investment in affordable French education. The fact that education is provincial is key. In Ontario, we think of ourselves as Canadian more than we consider ourselves Ontarians. In Québec, it is the exact opposite.

Québec’s tuition fees were set to go up marginally in 2012 from $2,168 to $3,793, but the students were having none of it. Instead, the students staged a “strike” by walking out of classes and filling the streets, a movement known as the Maple Spring. After the government passed the controversial Bill 78 to limit public protests, things turned more violent and political. There were repeated clashes with the police, resulting in injuries from flashbang grenades and tear gas to protesters losing eyes; students even dangled doughnuts in front of the cops to goad them into starting a riot. At the peak of the movement, over 250,000 students participated in the strike.

By the end of it, the separatist Parti Québécois capitalized on the student angst and public fatigue on the tuition issue, winning power in the 2012 election, immediately removing Bill 78 and putting an effective freeze on Québec tuition fees.

While it was not the passionate fight for free education that wide-eyed socialists hoped for, the unrest caused by increasing tuition to less than half of what Ontario students were paying resulted in the students declaring victory, and 3,507 people being arrested.

That being said, the tuition fees fight has seldom been one that Ontario’s students have been eager to fight with such passion. Provinces are unique, regional animals. Differing solutions can be found without excessive student violence. Student groups in Newfoundland and Labrador successfully lobbied the government to replace their student loan system with non-repayable grants.

Ontario students need to find the specific structure for creating that sort of change in our own provincial context. Hopefully, this APUS panel will get the ball rolling. We’ll be sure to check in.

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