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Québec triples fees for new undergraduate students from France

The Canadian Province of Québec announced last month that tuition rates for new undergraduate students from France will triple as of September 2015.

Québec is the centre of francophone culture in North America and the only province with a predominantly French-speaking population. As such, it has extensive ties and bilateral arrangements with France, including, since 1978, an agreement that allows French students to pay the same tuition rates charged to Québec students. This amounts to about CDN$2,300 (€1,700) a year currently.

However, Québec also applies two levels of differential fees: one for students from the rest of Canada and another for international students (that is, other than those from France).

Under the revised agreement announced 12 February, students from France will pay about CDN$6,650 (€4,900) a year, the same amount paid by students from the rest of Canada.

“Compared to what (other) international students pay, it’s still a very, very privileged rate for French students,” said International Relations Minister Christine St-Pierre.

Tuition for international students from outside of France currently ranges between CDN$12,000 and CDN$16,000 (€8,800 to €11,700).

Minister St-Pierre noted as well that French students already enrolled at a Québec university will continue to study at the reduced tuition rates until they complete their undergraduate studies. She added that French students in master’s and PhD programmes in Québec are unaffected and will continue to benefit from the lower Québec-resident tuition rates.

French enrolment way up

France sends more foreign students to Québec than any other country, and most of the growth in international enrolment in the province since 2006 is accounted for by growing French enrolment. The number of French students in Québec nearly doubled from 6,419 in 2006 to 12,495 in 2013. By 2013, 38.1% of the province’s 32,778 international students were arriving from France.

There were 8,693 bachelor’s students from the country in Québec in 2013, along with 2,632 master’s students and 1,170 PhD students.

Given the heavy representation of French students within Québec’s international student base, the question naturally arises as to whether the increase in tuition fees will discourage students from France from pursuing university degrees in Québec. However, as The Globe and Mail reported late last year, cost is only one consideration.

“For French students, cheap tuition is not the main draw of studying in Québec. The costs of a Canadian education are higher than staying at home, but students say the quality of Québec schools is far superior. ‘At French universities you have to specialise early on and after graduation, there is a lot of difficulty to find a job,’ said Aude Raffestin, a student in liberal arts and psychology at McGill University.”

Let the debate continue

The question as to whether it was fair for French students to pay less than other international students to study in Québec – less in fact than students from elsewhere in Canada – has swirled for some time. Even French President François Hollande weighed in late last year when he asked the Québec government to maintain the discount for students from France.

Higher education institutions in the province, however, have argued for higher tuitions for French students. The vice-president of communications for McGill University, Olivier Marcil, told the Montreal Gazette, “We feel that keeping their tuition at the level of Québec students is just too low in the current context. Québec doesn’t have the means to maintain this.”

However, the provincial student association, the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ), disagrees. A statement from FEUQ President Jonathan Bouchard argues that the estimated tuition gains from the new policy are overstated, in part due to the fact that some French students are in the province on exchange (with tuitions paid to their home universities in France). The FEUQ projects as well that the higher fees will cause French enrolment in the province to decline.

The association cites a 2006 study that found nearly 60% of international students at Montréal universities chose Montréal specifically because of the low cost of education in Québec. “Although the increase negotiated by the Liberal government won’t impede all French students from studying here,” adds Mr Bouchard, “[we] expect a reduction in French students’ enrolment.”

The FEUQ statement also points to the economic impact of French students in terms of non-tuition expenses. It estimates the impact of undergraduate French students’ spending at nearly CDN$280 million (€204 million) annually, principally for housing and other living expenses. Such broader impacts have also been part of similar differential fee debates in Sweden and Finland in recent years, where the proposed introduction of international differential fees has been weighed carefully against significant non-tuition spending by foreign students.

International enrolment is highly concentrated among a relatively small number of institutions (and communities) in Québec and those universities and jurisdictions are particularly vulnerable to any declines in foreign student numbers and related spending off campus.

“A drop in the number of French students would hit Concordia and McGill hard,” The Globe and Mail says of two prominent Montréal-based institutions. “Together they take in 40% of the total enrolment of French students, with francophone universities and Bishop’s University taking up the rest.”

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