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Education Preferential treatment for the French is here to stay

The Quebec government will continue to give postsecondary students from France a break on tuition compared with other international students, but it is reviewing an agreement that saw this group pay the same tuition fees as Quebec students. The issue was the subject of high-level discussions between Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard and French President François Hollande during the latter's visit to Canada this month.

In place since 1978, the agreement between the two jurisdictions lets French students pay tuition at the same rate charged to Quebec students, approximately $2,300 a year, several thousand dollars less than what Canadians from outside the province pay. With European youth particularly affected by the continent's slow climb out of the recession, the number of French students choosing Quebec universities has climbed steeply over the past few years and now costs the province $107.6-million a year. Mr. Hollande told the Quebec National Assembly that the exchange agreement was not special treatment, but a recognition of the friendship between Quebec and France.

"French students will continue to receive preferential treatment over other foreign students," the higher-education ministry said in a statement to The Globe and Mail. The government has struck a Franco-Quebec working group to decide how to preserve the friendship while meeting "a need for stringent management of expenditures."

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For French students, cheap tuition is not the main draw of studying in Quebec. The costs of a Canadian education are higher than staying at home, but students say the quality of Quebec schools is far superior. While more than 12,000 French students were studying at Quebec universities last year, only about 1,200 Quebec students were in France under the same agreement.

"At French universities you have to specialize 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. Ms. Raffestin first came to Canada at 15 to study English, and has planned to come back for postsecondary education since.

Most French public postsecondary institutions are not of the calibre of the brand names known abroad, like Sciences Po (L'institut d'études politiques de Paris) or the highly selective Grandes Écoles that shape the country's elites. Students also complain about what they call the French "mentality," a society they say is closed to new ideas and feel they have to escape.

"I wanted to emancipate myself and leave home since I was 15," said Ruben Abitbol, a student at Concordia University and the John Molson School of Business. It would be difficult to pay fees if they rose by $4,000, bringing them approximately in line with the bills faced by Canadian students, Mr. Abitbol said.

A drop in the number of French students would hit Concordia and McGill hard: Together they take in 40 per cent of the total enrolment of French students, with francophone universities and Bishop's University taking up the rest.

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