Sean Willett/the Gauntlet

Editorial: The woes of Quebec students

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"Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone." So sang Joni Mitchell. In the case of striking Quebec post-secondary students, they didn't realize how good they had things until the government tried to change it. Even now Quebec students fail to realize that with the changes things are pretty good.

The Quebec government announced that it will be raising tuition prices by 172 per cent, adding $1,625 over five years. At first sight, the percentage increase is shocking -- 172 per cent is a large increase. But even with the tuition increase Quebec students will still pay less tuition than most provinces.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2010-11 full-time undergraduate students in Quebec paid $2,415 in tuition, making Quebec the cheapest place to get an education in Canada. Compared to Alberta ($5,318) and Ontario, the highest in Canada ($6,307), tuition in Quebec is a good deal. The national average is $5,138, meaning Quebec students pay less than half the average cost of university.

The question, then, is why are Quebec students so upset? Students across the province have decided to strike, walking out of classes and preventing other students from attending. On Monday police used tear gas to prevent students from entering a building with Quebec premier Jean Charest inside. On March 22 a march in downtown Montreal is estimated to bring out 50,000 to 100,000 people.

The increase will bring annual tuition to $4,040, which will still be under the national average by more than $1,000, so -- at least by the standards of every other province -- it's difficult to see what the problem is.

Of course, just because students in other provinces pay more doesn't mean that Quebec's should go up. Unlike Alberta, which just announced that student loans will no longer be tied to the income of parents and spouses, some Quebec students might be genuinely unable to go to university because of the costs. But $4,000 isn't terribly onerous, even for stud-ents working part time. Quebec should nevertheless eliminate the consideration of parent income when distributing loans.

While students of all types like to complain about tuition increases, in Quebec's case, the rise is worthwhile. Quebec has been putting off these increases for years, which partly explains why the increase is so big in the first place. Quebec tuition has been going up -- it was less than $2,000 in 2006-07 -- but the total increase has been relatively insubstantial.

For students working low-income jobs, years away from graduation and uncertain about their future, paying for education can be difficult. Students shouldn't have to skip meals or work so much they can't study, but the demands placed on students -- who will usually make more in the long term than if they would have started working right away -- aren't too much to ask.

Quebec made a bad policy call by waiting so long to institute the tuition increase. And it probably does seem unfair to students in high school who will end up paying almost twice as much as those in university now. But it's not that bad. If they get really unhappy, they can always move to Ontario.