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Quebec students illustrate woes of 'squeeze' generation

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Many outside of Quebec are bemused the province's Sept. 4 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.

Student concern about tuition in Quebec invited a generational conversation. The average undergrad tuition in that province, $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.

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 to 21 per cent from 10 per cent. Revenue from governments fell to 55 per cent from 72 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 on average twice 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.

If only the student protestors had acknowledged more explicitly that rising tuition is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the challenges Canadians younger than 45 face today compared with 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 more than 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 household incomes flat-line relative to what the same demographic earned a generation ago, even though they 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 this is not like the grand causes -- the Arab spring -- sweeping other nations.

We're not Egypt or Libya, but commentators are wrong to suggest there is no grand cause. 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 government debts that are far larger today than what their parents inherited.

Most have adapted by delaying marriage and having children.

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's 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 can 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 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 a farmer morning and night. By day, he is an expert adviser with EvidenceNetwork.ca and a Mowafaghian Foundation Scholar with the School of Population and Public Health and the Human Early Learning Partnership at the University of British Columbia.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 29, 2012 A13

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