Life in Quebec Magazine is a lifestyle publication covering Quebec and is published 4 times per year.
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By Brett Taylor
Despite an increase in provincial funding for schools, some Quebecers pursuing a higher education continue to feel the pinch from years of provincial fiscal belt-tightening.
The Liberal government’s 2016 budget has increased funding for education by $1.2 billion over the next three years, of which $700 million has been earmarked for renovating and upgrading existing educational institutions.
The other $500 million is to be invested in “providing a stimulating learning environment, giving students the desire to succeed … and strengthening links between education networks and business in order to better meet labour market requirements,” according to the budget itself, released in March.
Spending growth for education has been bumped to 3 per cent for each of the next three years. It’s the largest spending increase since 2009-2010, more than doubling the 1.3 per cent increase for 2015-2016. It’s a change in direction for Québec students whose government sought only a few years ago to have them pay their “fair share” by dramatically increasing tuition fees, setting off months of protests.
But for all the budget promises, the government’s education funding policy has many critics, such as Lucinda Marshall-Kiparissis, general co-ordinator of Concordia University’s student union.
“I think it’s a matter of values. It’s what we consider universities to be,” says Marshall-Kiparissis. “Students are pursuing an education to have some kind of economic and financial stability . . . in the future. To ask whether students are paying their ‘fair share’ is to frame the student as a client, as opposed to someone who is being invested in order to participate in society in the future.”
Cara Piperni, McGill University’s director of scholarships and student aid, said despite a 300 per cent increase in bursaries made available to McGill students over the past decade, the number of students requesting financial aid has risen to 38 per cent this academic year from 34 per cent five years earlier. While that may seem like a small increase, Piperni said it is significant because it outpaces the school’s growth in enrolment.
“We’ve seen a lot more hardship,” Piperni says, adding that she sees “a heavy reliance on government aid” among students.
The recent funding cuts aren’t the only reason for the outstretched hands, according to Piperni.
“Financial literacy is also a challenge. It’s not just a matter of how much debt you have, it’s how you carry it,” she says, adding students enrolling in university today are more vulnerable. They may have already experienced a bankruptcy, they may have dependents, or they might have parents who themselves are saddled with student debt, she explains. She believes it’s important for government programs to “recognize that there are more and more complex family situations” and to give universities the resources to mitigate these situations.
“There’s no secret that the government has been cutting funding to universities for decades,” says Sarah Marshall, the director’s academic associate for McGill’s school of physical and occupational therapy. “It’s small-minded, short-sighted, pernicious underfunding. It’s poison for Québec as a province and as a society.”
Marshall says the government officials who determine university funding are so set on one position that it’s hard to change their minds. She says this has forced universities to rely more on private donations and alumni support to offset costs to students.
“The importance of university is not being recognized as it should be,” she says. In addition to tuition and books, there are countless user fees which all add up.”
How does one convince the government and the general public that Québec students, most of whom have enjoyed Canada’s lowest tuition rates for years, need more help?
“That’s the $50,000 question, isn’t it?” asks Marshall.
It is a question that Concordia University student Christina Jamgotchian would love to see answered.
Jamgotchian, a second-year anthropology and sociology student, works at a coffee shop near Concordia’s downtown campus and wishes the financial weight on students was a little lighter.
“We can handle the $1,500 per semester, [but] the books are crazy expensive,” she says. “It’s the extra $500 or $600 per semester which makes it so difficult.”
The cost of books is likely the most common complaint heard at the circulation desk of Concordia’s downtown library. It’s a complaint the school has tried to address. Copies of mandatory books are offered to undergraduates who are unable to pay the $120 or more per book themselves. But the demand for these books has skyrocketed, and with only one copy per course loaned out in three-hour increments, students are looking elsewhere to save money.
Perhaps surprisingly, many students are turning their hunt for savings to where their searches began: the university bookstore.
Steven Zulkarnain, the operations manager for Concordia’s bookstore, the Montreal Book Stop, says Concordia recently made the course material for some classes available in digital form. As ebooks, which usually cost around 40 per cent of the regular cost of textbooks, become more available, Zulkarnain is witnessing a migration to the digital world.
“More and more students are turning to digital media,” Zulkarnain says. “It won’t happen any time soon, but in five or 10 years, we might be closed.”
“We’ll be extinct,” quips a passing employee.
For now, students like Jamgotchian will continue to accumulate debt while they strive toward degrees that do not guarantee employment. But will the provincial government’s reinvestment in education mean better times ahead for students?
Not necessarily, according to Marshall-Kiparissis.
“A slight reinvestment is better than nothing, but it’s extremely modest,” she says of the new budget. “It’s a nice sum, but I’d not consider it [a sign of] massive reinvestment to come.”
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