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Rex Murphy's naive take on the Quebec student protests

Non à la Hausse! Photo: Stéphanie Amesse/Flickr

On CBC's The National last week, Rex Murphy weighed in on Quebec's student protests; the transcript can be found here, and the three-minute video here. He calls the protests "short sighted," points out that Quebec already has the lowest tuition fees in Canada, and suggests the students' actions are "crude attempts at precipitating a crisis." He says they are the "actions of a mob," are "simply wrong," and should be "condemned."

I am glad to learn that Mr. Murphy does not feel inhibited when it comes to expressing himself. However, I think his analysis would be stronger if it included a bit of nuance.

I would urge Mr. Murphy to consider the following:

First, as recently as 1979 in Canada, government grants covered 80 per cent of a university or college's operating budget. Today, they cover approximately 50 per cent of a university or college's operating budget. Times have certainly changed.

Second, indicators gathered from reliable survey data paint a troubling picture of living conditions for post-secondary students in Quebec. Relatively recent data suggest the following:

- 50 per cent of full-time undergraduate students in Quebec live on less $12,200 per year. This includes any funds from internal and external scholarships, money from co-op programs or internships, government grants or loans, money from family and child support.

- 40 per cent of undergraduate students in the province receive no financial assistance whatsoever from their family members.

- More than 80 per cent of Quebec's full-time undergraduate students are gainfully employed. Of those who are gainfully employed, roughly half work more than 15 hours per week.

- Two-thirds of full-time undergraduate students in the province do not live with their parents.

- 20 per cent of Quebec's full-time undergraduate students over the age of 24 have at least one child of their own.

- More than half of full-time undergraduate students in Quebec receive no financial aid whatsoever.

- 57 per cent of Quebec's full-time undergraduate students pay more than 30 per cent of their income on housing. (Note: Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation considers a household to be in "core housing need" if it cannot find suitable, adequate housing in the local market without paying more than 30 per cent of its income on housing.)

Third, Quebec's lower tuition fees appear to bring about positive outcomes. Though Quebec does have the lowest tuition fees in Canada, it also has higher post-secondary participation rates than in the rest of Canada. It should also be noted that students in Quebec typically graduate with considerably lower student debt than their counterparts in Ontario, which has the highest tuition fees in Canada.

What's more, in Newfoundland and Labrador, where the provincial government has increased funding for post-secondary education in recent years and reduced tuition fees such that they are now among the lowest in Canada (almost as low as Quebec), enrollment has increased quite substantially, and student debt has decreased very substantially.

Clearly, there is more to the Quebec student protests than meets the eye. One can choose to condemn them. One can also seek to understand them.

This article was first posted on The Progressive Economics Forum.

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