Educated Analysis vs Cappuccino Logic: Responding to the Quebec student strike

It was bound to happen.

After almost three months, Margaret Wente finally got wind of this kerfuffle in Quebec about students refusing to buy into the whole “but it’s just the cost of a cappuccino a day!” rationale for why a 75% increase in tuition fees over five (or 82% over seven) years is, like, the way of the future. Or something.

Margaret isn’t feeling much love for those Quebec students who “pay the lowest tuition fees in all of North America”….and still will, she claims, even with the increase legislated by the provincial Liberals.

I’m not sure how that adds up: thanks to a hefty rollback, current fees in Newfoundland-Labrador are only slightly higher than Quebec’s, and the recently legislated increase will put Quebec’s fees above Manitoba’s and slightly below the national average in five or seven years. But hey—why bother with math when you can sit back and just make your point with a cappuccino reference?

There’s no doubt that her journalistic slant plays well with the “enough with all this talk of the growing gap—you’re blocking traffic and now my coffee’s getting cold. Doesn’t your liberal arts education teach you about real world priorities?” crowd.

Yes, Quebec students pay the lowest university fees in Canada, and CEGEPs are publicly funded and therefore very affordable. It’s in part why Quebec has the highest post-secondary education participation rate in the country: because their students can attend university or CEGEP without pocketing a $37,000 debt load along with their diploma upon graduation.

I’m a little surprised that Margaret didn’t delve into the “analysis” that was trotted out by several of her fellow strike-critics over the past few days claiming that in spite of lower fees, Quebec students do not attend university in numbers as great as their ROC counterparts (ergo, lower fees actually reduce university participation rates).

Not only did this research neglect to mention the hugely popular publicly-funded CEGEPs that allow thousands of Quebecers to graduate with a diploma before choosing (or not) to attend university (Quebec students have different options after graduating high school, designed to suit a range of educational needs and choices); it also didn’t differentiate between Quebec’s three-year bachelor degrees and the four-year degrees outside of Quebec which, if not adequately taken into consideration, would artificially reduce Quebec’s participation rate compared to that of other provinces.

But that didn’t seem to occur to the media outlets that used these “findings” as an opportunity to scoff at the three Quebec student unions for troubling the public with discussions of affordability, inequality, access and (gasp!) social justice.

These deeper issues like, you know, democracy and stuff clearly get under Margaret’s skin (I’m curious: where did she manage to find a “sneer” font on her keyboard for words like “social justice”?).

But she feels for these kids—she calls them the baristas of the future—she really does: all those “projectile-hurling”, “sociology, anthropology, philosophy, arts, and victim-studies students, whose degrees are increasingly worthless”.  (Victim-studies? Has she been fine-tuning her rhetoric in Arizona?) After all, they’ve been sold a bill of goods by their professors who have been deluding them into believing their “cause” (whatever that may be) is just, and “that the education they’re getting will equip them to thrive and prosper in the world.”

Wait…the proof that it’s all about useless areas of study?….I know it’s around here somewhere. Oh yes—accounting students aren’t protesting.  Neither are engineering students. She says.

I mean, seriously? Did you catch all the creativity at the protests? The originality of the signs? The puppets, the dancing, the songs, the lipdubs, the passionate debate about class and public responsibility? What self-respecting real-world focused student would be caught dead within a ten-block radius of all that touchy-feely analysis and appreciation for rhythm and design? Participation in the strike is sustained (stabilizing at close to 200,000 by some counts) and new students are joining the protest, but maybe it’s simply too time-consuming to look into who’s actually supporting this mass action anyway.

Ironically, those protesting students seem to have picked up some fairly articulate arguments and analysis—even some pretty savvy IT and communications skills (apparently through osmosis or divine intervention, since it’s not likely they could have honed any of this in labs or lecture halls studying subject areas that have nothing to do with the “real world”).  It’s unfortunate that some commentators ignore the substance of their arguments, preferring instead to pontificate about why kids today should stop complaining, accept the world that’s being left for them to make do with….and hey! get off my damn lawn.

But then, that’s the warm and fuzzy comfort of cappuccino logic. Did you want extra foam with that, Ms. Wente?


  1. There are two errors here which undermine half the article. The analysis is this: and does include CEGEPs, whose numbers reinforce the results, and the methodology prevents the different numbers of years from changing things. 41% college-attendance including roughly 22% in pre-university programs leaves the lowest rate in attendance of college-programs equivalent to those of other provinces. Check p.11 for even more damning details.

    1. To clarify, I believe you’re basing your comments on the cited report’s analysis for males, not all students (which can be found on page 9). indeed, the report does say “The overall rate of college participation in Ontario, 36.4 per cent, is surpassed only in Quebec, where students access college at a rate of 40 per cent, which reflects their unique CEGEP system.” (The university participation rate at 29% is in addition to, not included with, the CEGEP rate.) However, media outlets that used this (and the other research to which I was also referring) to critique the rationale behind the student strike focused almost exclusively on university participation, virtually ignoring CEGEPS–and this formed the basis of their claim that low tuition fees do not encourage participation.

      This decision to ignore a major aspect of higher education in Quebec also eliminates from the discussion the ways in which CEGEPS and universities work together to facilitate access to different kinds of education at different times in a student’s life–which impacts when Quebec students go to university (generally starting later than ROC students). It also does not reflect the programs that are provided in CEGEPS in Quebec, but in universities in other provinces, which is another reason why college participation is higher than university participation in that province.

      Knowing higher education is more affordable also allows students to more easily change or add to their area of study either in CEGEP or university–a financial flexibility students in most other provinces do not have (and a structural flexibility that is unique to Quebec). A wider age range than the 21 years that the report you cite relies on (18-24 for the ROC and 17-24 for Quebec, as Statscan frequently uses) to determine pse participation would better capture more of this flexibility, and give us a better understanding of how and when Quebec’s education system (and the degree to which it is publicly funded) is used by students at different stages of their lives.

      But you bring up a very interesting point–and thanks for that–post-secondary education is virtually a job requirement, and as fees continue to be downloaded onto students and their families, in order to truly determine and understand the impact of affordability on access (and opportunity) we need to include the longer term impacts of debt post-graduation in any analysis we undertake. When we looked at this in Ontario we were able to qualitatively document some of the impacts–postponement of major life decisions, for example, and changes in employment choices as well as the effects on families. National research of this sort would be very useful, particularly with record high levels of youth unemployment and growing inequality.

      Thanks for your comments, Stephen!

  2. woa, you’ve nailed Margaret alright. I dropped my Friday and Saturday Globe subscription in large part because of her. Shouldn’t she be working for Fox news? I’m so grateful you’re out there doing the hard work. We love you for it and I do believe with your continued support we are all slowly waking up.

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