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A protester holds a sign during a student march in protest against tuition fee hikes in downtown Montreal, Quebec April 30, 2012. The sign reads as "For sale: our education."

OLIVIER JEAN/Olivier Jean/Reuters

Jean Charest basically has it right with his proposal to raise Quebec tuition fees over five to seven years. Not only would the Premier's policy inject badly needed funds into Quebec's postsecondary institutions, it would do it with little effect on access – in fact, it would probably make the issue of "who pays" fairer than it is now.

Anyone who has paid even casual attention to the student protests in Quebec knows that it charges its residents the lowest university tuition in the country – roughly half what is paid elsewhere. Even so, university participation rates of young Quebeckers are approximately 12 percentage points below those of other Canadians. If access were all about tuition fees, as seems to be assumed by the protesters, those patterns should run in the other direction. What's going on?

Mounting empirical evidence suggests financial barriers rarely prevent young Canadians from going on to postsecondary education. Family income – which presumably would be strongly linked to financial barriers – is, in fact, only weakly related to attendance. Of much greater importance is parental education: For example, regardless of income level, a child is considerably more likely to attend university if their parents have done so.

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Further evidence comes in the data on the children of immigrants, who have much higher university participation rates than non-immigrants, including as much as 90 per cent for those from China, regardless of both family income and parental education levels.

When asked directly about barriers, only about 20 per cent of all postsecondary-education non-participants cite financial factors. Even among these, affordability per se does not seem to be the main issue: "It costs too much" seems to mean "I don't see the value in it."

Meanwhile, high school grades and international test scores at age 15 are strongly related to who goes. This is partly because schooling decisions typically appear to be made quite early – about 80 per cent of those who attend university say they knew they were going by the end of Grade 10; 40 per cent "always knew"!

In short, "cultural" factors seem to dominate "financial" ones in determining who goes on to postsecondary education, particularly university. In part, this is thanks to the generally adequate financial aid system that is in place. If a young person is brought up in an environment where the value and importance of postsecondary education is stressed, if they see university as a real option in their life and if they begin to prepare for it from an early age, they are likely to go. The money will be found.

The real barriers that remain are the cultural ones referred to earlier. Essentially, we need to get college and university attendance on the radar of young people earlier and more effectively. The best place for this is the high schools. Simply helping graduating high school students fill out college or university application forms significantly increases the numbers who go. Discussing the potential benefits of the additional schooling, trips to college and university campuses, visits back to schools by "student ambassadors," getting parents engaged and making sure students know about the financial aid system could all be elements of such a strategy.

There is much that can be done, and we have barely skimmed the surface of what is possible – largely because we have been so fixated on those largely non-existent financial barriers, in Quebec, as elsewhere.

Furthermore, such measures need not be expensive – almost certainly not in comparison with the costs of keeping university tuition low for everyone. Low tuition essentially provides subsidies to those individuals who can well afford to pay more, along with those who truly need the assistance. Since higher income groups are still more likely to send their children to university and because university students, on average, go on to much higher earnings than others, this is akin to a regressive tax that favours higher income groups. A much more effective – and fairer – policy is to specifically target those students who truly need financial assistance.

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This is essentially the Charest policy: increasing tuition fees, but simultaneously increasing aid to those from low income families to offset those increases. This is why the policy makes sense in terms of raising money from those who can afford to pay more to attend university, while protecting participation rates, even among low income families.

We would urge Mr. Charest to go further, however, to address the cultural barriers we have described. Such a policy would likely do much more both to increase this group's generally lagging university-participation rates and equalize access for all youth, regardless of family circumstances, than any tuition fee policy ever could.

For this, we, too, would march.

Ross Finnie is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and Director of the Educational Policy Research Initiative at the University of Ottawa.

Richard Mueller is in the Department of Economics at the University of Lethbridge and associate director of the Educational Policy Research Initiative at the University of Ottawa.

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