Quebec student strike invites generational conversation

Support for student strikers wanes in Quebec.  New legislation restricts protests. Frustration grows about smoke bombs, vandalism and violence.  Divisions among students receive media scrutiny as protestors prevent others from going to class.  Even former Premier Lucien Bouchard publicly endorsed his Parti Quebecois’ rival, the Liberal government, by supporting its stand on tuition hikes.

Outside Quebec, many are bemused by protests about student fees that are already the lowest in Canada.  Still, it is outside Quebec where we should pay careful attention to the strike, because it is in the rest of Canada where circumstances give more reason to protest.

The concern about tuition in Quebec invites a generational conversation. Presently, the average undergrad tuition ($2,519) in that province 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.

As Quebec post-secondary students resist 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.  Thereafter, Statistics Canada shows that university revenue from student fees 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 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.

As students question why tuition has doubled, I can’t help thinking ‘if only….’  If only the student protestors acknowledged more explicitly that rising tuition 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.

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 25-34 have seen their household incomes flat-line relative to what the same demographic earned a generation ago.  They flat-lined 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.  For instance, urging “tough treatment of Quebec student strikers,” the National Post published a column by Michael Den Tandt who argued “This is not Egypt or Libya. There is no romance here, no grand cause.”

Den Tandt is right.  We’re not Egypt or Libya.  But he is wrong to suggest there is no grand cause.  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.  They are squeezed by an environmental debt they must pay because Canadians have made no progress reducing per capita carbon dioxide emissions since 1976.  And they are squeezed by government debts that are far larger today than what their parents inherited.

Most in the squeeze generations have adapted by delaying marriage and kids. But let there be no mistake.  So long as we leave starting a Family Unaffordable by the standards established a generation ago, this may be the ultimate F.U. to the generations in their prime child rearing years today.

Quebec students signal this F.U. is a generational cause worthy of protestation and public dialogue.  They invite us to acknowledge new challenges that confront Canadians under 45, which didn’t exist a generation ago.  Policy solutions exist for these new challenges, just as they did decades ago before pensions and medical care were in place to prevent retirement and ill-health from leaving many seniors in poverty.

Quebec students may not be developing this conversation to its full potential, because that province initiated policy change to ease (although not eliminate) pressures young adults face when starting families.  But outside of Quebec, the trouble young Canadians have with higher tuition is dwarfed by failures to adapt family policy.  In one year, young couples forgo nearly a degree’s worth of tuition to split time at home when they decide to have a baby, even when using Canada’s parental leave system.  And they annually fork over the equivalent of a couple years of tuition to pay for child care services, if they are lucky enough to find quality spaces for their preschool kids. 

So, as the mood may be turning on Quebec students, the rest of the country would be wise to carry on the generational conversation they initiate.  We don’t want to see vandalism or smoke bombs on our transit.  But 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.

Ryan Vandecasteyen
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Quebec student strike invites generational conversation
Quebec student strike invites generational conversation
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