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henry aubin

Interesting food for thought by Henry Aubin in the Gazette, with a perspective of the high dropout rates among university undergraduates in Quebec:

According to the organization that represents university heads, CREPUQ, Concordia is the Montreal school with the highest dropout rate. UQÀM is hard on its heels. Université de Montréal is substantially better, though still worse than the Canadian average. McGill is the only Quebec university that graduates a greater share of its students than the national average.

[ . . . ]

That’s because the academic disciplines from which the boycott draws most of its participants, according to the boycotters’ website (, are the same disciplines that, according to CREPUQ (, have the highest dropout rates. These typically include geography, fine arts, education, literature, sociology, anthropology and political science.

Aubin’s analysis — both of dropout rates and of areas of study — completely ignores/disregards CEGEP. Surely any analysis of post-secondary dropout rates or of the value of trade diplomas versus university education needs to take the CEGEP system into consideration. I don’t have statistics handy, but the CEGEPs typically have higher dropout rates than either universities or high schools. And they’re free. Because of that, students have the freedom to experiment, to switch programs, to veer off from one course only to circle back on another course later on. All without wasting any money, other than failure fees or some textbook costs. But those who do graduate are either completing pre-university programs or are getting those trade degrees that Aubin thinks we desperately need.

And here, I disagree with Aubin’s conclusion. A healthy society doesn’t just need more trained monkeys to fill jobs; we need thinkers and educated people with ideas. We need people to challenge the status quo. We need not only employees but entrepreneurs, not only functionaries but luminaries.

The thing is, not everyone is cut out to be a luminary. And in the fight for “accessible” education, we tend to forget that providing people with the keys to the castle doesn’t mean they’re all going to be kings and queens. Life is, after all, what you make of your opportunities.

There’s a spurious correlation at work in Aubin’s article. Studying geography, sociology, liberal arts or political science does not cause one to drop out. But these disciplines tend to attract the most politicized (in Quebec, that means far left-wing) students and professors.  They also tend to have less clear career paths for students after graduation, which may be contributing to those same students’ disillusionment with university education — and with their prospects for success in general. Hence the higher rate of participation in the protests, compared to, say, business or engineering majors.

When I was at Concordia, the Arts & Science and Fine Arts faculties regularly rabble-roused in campus politics, while the JMSB (business) and Engineering faculties routinely stayed out of such things. I remember the oddity of being a marketing student in a communication studies class, the frequent scapegoat for a room full of self-described “anti-capitalists” who liked to wax poetic about the evils of corporations. Some of them have since graduated, and are probably working for the aforementioned “evil” corporations. Others are still out rabble-rousing. Plus ça change.

That’s not to say that there isn’t an important point being made in Aubin’s article. McGill is the only university in Montreal with lower-than-average drop0ut rates. It’s also the only university to attract a majority anglophone student body, largely from other provinces. As a Léger poll published in the Gazette last month indicates, there’s a stark difference between how education is valued among anglophone, francophone and allophones in this province:

Among younger Quebecers, we see the same divergence. About 85 per cent of Quebec allophone students and 80 per cent of Quebec anglophone students see a university degree as a minimal requirement [for success], compared with just 40 per cent of francophone students surveyed by Léger.

It’s a classic chicken-or-egg situation. CEGEP has been free and university has been cheap for over four decades. Like a ten-dollar diamond, nobody attributes much value to a cheap university degree.

“Accessible education” should mean that anyone who deserves to go to university should be able to, regardless of financial circumstance. It doesn’t mean that university should be open to everyone, whether or not they care about getting a degree. Because then, it becomes a farce of itself.


Whatever your opinion of the demerger referendums, the dirty tricks that cost some cities their demerger bid, or the eventual outcome for both demerged and still-merged cities, they changed the face of democracy in Quebec, as Henry Aubin explains (sorry, link requires registration, which makes me feel less guilty about quoting a large chunk of it):

The demerger voters have not only rocked the boat of Quebec authoritarianism. On Montreal Island and Longueuil, they’ve capsized it.

By authoritarianism, I mean that tradition in which elected officials – on both the municipal and provincial levels – bring citizenship to its lowest possible level on the democratic scale. In return for being allowed to vote every few years, grateful citizens are supposed to shut up between elections and let people they’ve voted into office become bullies. The public possesses no automatic right to being consulted between elections on policy issues – a right that in most North Americans and western Europeans take for granted.

[ . . . ]

These results augur a sea change in the way provincial and city governments in the Montreal region will have to relate to citizens. In the most impudent display of people power in memory, voters in many municipalities across the province have insisted on the right to have a say in decision-making between elections.

Legally speaking, the provincial and city governments will be as free as they’ve always been to treat the public highhandedly. But the political ethos has changed.

Just as the demise of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords created a political (as distinct from legal) precedent that has made constitutional reform unthinkable, so the collapse of mega-Montreal and mega-Longueuil will make certain practices unacceptable.

No longer will a provincial government dare to transform public institutions without an electoral mandate, as did the former Parti Quebecois government in its breathtaking abolition of more than municipalities.

No longer will a provincial government refuse even to hold public hearings on so vital issue.

No longer will it dare to embark on so sweeping an enterprise without having studies to back it up.

True, this new mindfulness by government will not be automatic. In examining yesterday’s results, politicians are not going to slap their foreheads and renounce arrogance.

No, what will change is the public’s confidence in its ability to stand up and insist on being heard – and not just by the provincial government but also by city governments and other public bodies.

In fact, with all the conflicting studies and pieces of propaganda issued by both sides, it’s almost impossible to predict whether cities that demerged will be better off than ones that didn’t. But for most demergerites, this wasn’t the issue. The point was that the government can’t steamroll over democracy.

And, at least as far as this goes, mission accomplished. Next time, they’ll think twice.

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Free French lessons?


Gazette columnist Henry Aubin adds his two cents into the volatile pool of Quebec language issues, proposing free French lessons for students who graduate from university in Montreal and then end up leaving the province to seek employment elsewhere. It’s Aubin’s idea of a way to solve the brain drain: Students flock here from outside […]

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