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August 30, 2012
VANCOUVER, BC, Aug 30, 2012/ Troy Media/ – Many outside of Quebec are bemused that the province’s September 4th election was triggered largely by student protests in the province where tuition is lowest. But it is outside of Quebec where Canadians should pay careful attention to the strike, because it is in the rest of Canada where circumstances give more reason to protest.
At present, the average undergrad tuition in Quebec ($2,519) is on par with Canada’s national average back in 1976. If the proposed $1,778 tuition hike takes effect, Quebec fees will become 70 per cent higher than what Canadians paid a generation ago.
So while Quebec post-secondary students are resisting this increase, other young Canadians have been coping with it for some time. Controlling for inflation, national average tuition fees were stable from 1976 to 1990, then, according to Statistics Canada, grew from 10 to 21 per cent, while revenue from governments fell from 72 to 55 per cent.
Given this generational change, students across the country have every reason to question why young adults today must pay tuition fees that are twice as much, on average, what their parents paid. This question is especially worth asking since post-secondary education is much more important today than it was a generation ago in terms of landing a middle-income job.
Canada not only has more graduates with student debt today than in the mid-1970s, the average debt load is now markedly higher upon graduation.
Rising tuition, however, is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the challenges that Canadians under 45 face today compared to a generation ago because tuition, especially in Quebec, is not the major barrier for young adults.
A bigger barrier is that young people’s wages aren’t keeping pace with the cost of living as they try to pay for schooling. The average minimum wage in Canada in 1976 was slightly above current minimums, around $10.50 in today’s dollars. While minimum wages stalled, housing prices went up 76 per cent across the country, and over 90 per cent in Quebec. This means students pay far higher rents today while attending classes.
The situation doesn’t improve once students leave school with post-secondary certificates.
Young couples age 25 to 34 have seen their household incomes flat-line relative to what the same demographic earned a generation ago, even though today’s young couples are far more likely to be dual-earners, not single earners with a stay-at-home spouse.
This creates a bleak future for Canada’s younger generations, something that is too often ignored. Some pundits urged ‘tough treatment’ of Quebec student strikers, noting that this is not like the grand causes – the Arab spring – sweeping other nations.
But the fact is, the standard of living has declined substantially for Canadians who follow the Boomer generation. They are squeezed for time at home because two earners are needed to make incomes that don’t keep up with higher housing costs and student debts. And they are squeezed by government debts that are far larger today than what their parents inherited. The ‘squeeze’ generations has adapted by delaying marriage and kids.
Outside of Quebec, the trouble young Canadians have with higher tuition is dwarfed by failures to adapt family policy to new realities. In a single year, young couples who decide to have a baby forgo nearly a university degree worth of tuition to split time at home, even taking into account Canada’s parental leave system. And they annually fork over the equivalent of a couple of years of tuition to pay for child care services – if they are lucky enough to find quality spaces for their preschool kids.
So, as Quebecers head to the polls, the rest of the country would be wise to carry on the generational conversation that Quebec students initiated.
If we continue to ignore the declining standard of living for Canadians under age 45, we shouldn’t be surprised by protests. Truth be told, the bad generational deal for young Canadians is worse outside Quebec than it is in la belle province.
Paul Kershaw is an expert advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca and a Mowafaghian Foundation Scholar with the School of Population and Public Health and the Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP) at the University of British Columbia.
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