Students outside Quebec have more to protest

Paul Kershaw, The Province

… 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 under-grad tuition in Quebec ($2,519) is on par with Canada’s national aver-age 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. Con-trolling for inflation, national aver-age 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 per cent 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, 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 with 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 school. 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.

Couples age 25 to 34 have seen their household incomes flatline relative to what the same demo-graphic 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, some-thing 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, for instance – 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” generation has adapted by delaying marriage and kids.

Outside 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 – if they are lucky enough to find quality spaces for their preschool kids….