A few years ago, we used to joke, my wife and I, that the fees for our younger son's hockey program at his public high school were more than those for our older son's term at our local university.
While you may be puzzled by what my we find amusing, the point here is that on some twisted graph comparing the relative cost of learning in Quebec, skating and shooting have greater value than reading and writing.
In two weeks time, younger son is off to university, and my wife and I are still joking — maybe that's not the right word — how about breathing a sigh of relief? That's because we consider ourselves lucky that our kids get to go to university in Quebec. For decades, folks in other provinces have been saying, with a large dose of envy, that tuition fees here are a joke.
Indeed, Quebec university fees are unquestionably the lowest in a country where education fees are set by provincial governments.
The basic tuition (onto which are added, in our case, about $1,000 in other fees) is $2,168 Canadian; the national average, with Quebec not included, is $5,535. The next closest is Newfoundland and Labrador at $2,619; the highest is Ontario at $5,951; the closest to the national average is Alberta with $5,520.
A quick check at the fees for SUNY, by comparison, shows the basic tuition to be $5,270 plus an average "student fee" of $1,300.
Tuition for undergraduate programs at private U.S. universities — of which there are none in Canada — can run, according to one recent report, from $21,000 to $42,000.
Quebec, as it does in so many ways from public pensions to day care to liquor laws, has developed a distinct approach to university funding. The province's cut-rate tuition fees, while a departure from the French model of essentially free university for citizens, accord with the province's philosophy of keeping public services affordable through higher taxes.
The consequence has been one of the higher university attendance rates in the country but also universities starved for cash and having a hard time competing with other universities for top personnel, at least according to the deans of academe who have been pressuring the Quebec government to hike fees for years.
Quebec has kept tuition frozen at the inflation-adjusted equivalent of 1968 rates for more than 30 years. Successive provincial governments have hinted at rate increases, only to be met by the collective wrath of the province's student organizations.
Last spring, though, the government of Premier Jean Charest decided to bite the post-secondary bullet. In the province's annual budget, it announced that as of fall 2012, tuition would go up $325 a year for five years. That would still leave Quebec's rates 30 percent below the national average.
At the same time, the Quebec government is promising to pump about another half-billion dollars into the university system over the same period. It's also calling on universities to be more aggressive in seeking private sources of revenue, a practice at which U.S. universities excel.
The province is promising to soften the blow for students with a more generous program of bursaries. Still, student groups are rumbling about taking to the streets once classes are under way in the fall.
As for us, we are applauding our good timing in sending our kid to college for at least the last year of cheap fees.
An update on my column of July 29. As some readers may already know, Jack Layton, the leader of the New Democratic Party and newly elected leader of the Official Opposition, died early Monday morning of cancer. He was 61.
Canadians knew he was very sick from his physical appearance at a press conference less than a month ago to announce his state of health. But except for those closest to him, few knew how ferocious — and cruel — his cancer was.
He is the first Canadian Opposition leader to die in office, and the first to be accorded a state funeral, to be held tomorrow in Toronto.
Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.