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Defending Quebec’s Cegep System

Disclaimer: So far, I’ve taught at six universities and one college in Indiana, Massachusetts, New Brunswick, and Quebec. In Quebec, I’ve taught at Montreal’s Université de Montréal (French-speaking) and Concordia University (English-speaking). This entry is mostly about my teaching experience in Montreal in contrast to my teaching experience in the MidWest and Northeast regions of the United States. Having spent some time in Mali, Switzerland, and France, I do realise that many education systems outside of Canada and the U.S. work pretty much like Quebec’s.

It’s partly my bias as a Québécois, I’m sure. Or it’s the weather. Yet I can’t help but being amazed at how well-prepared my students at both Concordia University and Université de Montréal have been, so far. Though personal characteristics could conceivably play a part, I usually see my Quebec students’ preparedness in relation to the Cegep system that we have here in Quebec.

“So,” I hear you ask, “what is the Cegep system anyway?” Well, it’s the educational system that we have, here in Quebec. It includes Cegeps.

“But…”

Yeah, I know. 😉

“Cegep” or “CEGEP” (pronounced “sea-jep” or “say-jep”) is a Quebec French acronym which stands for «Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel» (“College of General and Professional Education”). A Cegep is a post-secondary institution («Collège») which serves both as a comprehensive («Général») transitional period between secondary school and university as well as vocational («Professionnel») training («Enseignement») in fields like nursing, robotics, or computer science. People in the U.S. could think of it as a blend of a vocational school, a community college, a prep school, a continuing education program, and a two-year liberal arts college. A Cegep’s degree («diplôme d’études collégiales» or “DEC,” pronounced “deck”) can be compared with things like the French «baccalauréat» or the Swiss «maturité», but less Euro-hierarchical. (Please note that «baccalauréat» (or «bacc.», pronounced “back”) is used in Quebec to refer to the bachelor’s degree.)

Though I haven’t been in direct contact with many Cegep students for quite a while, I find the Cegep system to be one of the best features of the Quebec education system.

Of course, I tend to idealise things a fair bit and I know many people whose opinion of the Cegep system is much less enthusiastic than mine. Still, through both informal and formal discussions with many university students and faculty in Canada, France, Switzerland, and the United States, my positive perspective on the Cegep system keeps being reinforced.

One reason this issue keeps being relevant is that provincial politicians, school board administrators, and some other members of Quebec society occasionally attack the Cegep system for different reasons. On the other hand, I have yet to meet a university professor who has very negative things to say about the Cegep system. They might come out with this blog entry, but it would take a fair bit to get me, as a university instructor, to see Cegeps in very negative a light.

Cegeps were an effect of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution (late 1960s through the 1970s). They’re a somewhat recent phenomenon, so we can’t really see all of their social effects, but have existed for long enough a period of intense social change that they have really taken roots in the fabric of Quebec culture. (I love mixing metaphors! 😉 )

I’m a little bit unclear as to whether or not the requirements have remained the same since my own time as a music student at Cégep Saint-Laurent (1989-1991), but here’s a description in the present tense of how Cegeps worked when I went to one almost twenty years ago. All Quebeckers younger than 21 who wish to go to a university in Quebec need to complete at least two years’ worth of Cegep courses after secondary school (grades 7-11, here). “Professional” (vocational) programs last three years and also work for university requirements if a Cegep graduate wants to go to a university. For those 21 or older, life experience usually counts as equivalent to the Cegep requirement for applying to Quebec universities (at least, that’s the way it was, way back when). Even then, most university applicants go through Cegep even if they are old enough to enter a university program without a DEC as Cegep is an efficient way to prepare for university. Many programs at Quebec universities use representations of Cegep grades (kind of like a normalised GPA) as admission criteria. It wasn’t the case for my B.Sc. in anthropology at Université de Montréal (1991-1994). Unlike the United States where standardised tests are so common, Quebec students don’t take SAT-like general exams before going to university. To an extent, comprehensive training in a Cegep achieves some of the same goals as SAT scores do in the United States.

As far as I know, non-Quebec students need to go through specific requirements before they can begin a Bachelor’s degree at a Quebec university (B.A. and B.S. programs usually last three years, here). I’m not really clear on the details but it implies that even non-Cegep students are specifically prepared to go to university.

Even with students who never went to Cegep, the existence of Cegeps makes a large difference in the Quebec education system as it raises the bar for university behaviour. In Quebec, the kinds of mistakes college students tend to make in their “college years” in the U.S. are supposed to have been done during Cegep years in Quebec. So Quebec’s university students are less likely to make them

Unlike pupils in secondary schools, Cegep students enter a specific study program. On paper, course requirements in a typical Cegep program look quite a bit like freshman and sophomore requirements at a North American university or college outside of Quebec. Students choose their own courses (possibly with an advisor, I can’t remember) and usually get a fair bit of “free” time. At Saint-Laurent, my weekly scheduled only included 15 hours of classes but I also had 15 hours of Big Band rehearsal every week and would usually spend thirty hours of individual instrument practise as well as thirty hours of study every week. Yes, that was a bit much but I feel it really prepared me for an academic career. 😉

The equivalent of “General Education Requirements” in Cegeps include philosophy and physical education courses. The philosophy courses are quite basic but they still prepare students to think about issues which tend to be very important in academic contexts. And, at least in the courses I’ve had at Saint-Laurent, we did read primary texts from important thinkers, like the complete text of Nietzsche’s Zur Genealogie der Moral (translated into French).

As compared to most North American universities, Cegeps charge almost nothing. When I was at Saint-Laurent, we had administrative fees of about $80 and no tuition fees. It has probably changed since that time, but I’m quite sure Cegep fees are nothing like the outrageous tuition fees paid by college and university students in many parts of the United States. What this means to students is that the financial cost of a Cegep program is fairly minimal. Of course, there are many costs associated with going through school during that time. For one thing, a good proportion of Cegep students live in appartments, which can be fairly expensive. And it’s difficult to work full-time while doing a Cegep degree. But, as compared to the typical situation in the U.S., the stakes in dropping a Cegep program or switching to a new one are low enough that students use this time as an opportunity to get to know what they want to do with their lives.

In other words, Cegep students who may look like they’re “wasting their time” are going through the period of socialisation associated with late adolescence in different parts of the world. If, as is quite common, they find out that they don’t necessarily want to get a university degree or that their original degree program was nothing like they planned, they still got something out of their Cegep experience at little cost. Given the functioning costs of universities, such shifts in learning orientation carry very high social and individual costs if they happen in universities. “Wasting” a DEC in Natural Sciences by then moving on to become an artist is nothing as compared to dropping a pre-Med degree to join the Peace Corps. In cases where public funding to universities is important, the difference is extremely significant, socially.

For many people, Cegep is in fact a way to experience student life to see if they like it. As painful as it may be for some academics and prestige-hungry parents to learn, many people don’t really want to spend that many years (and that much money) as college/university students. In fact, there are those brilliant students who, one day, realise that they just want to learn on their own while working as, say, a cashier at a university cafeteria. My guess is that social pressure and diploma prestige are the only reasons such people ever go through post-secondary education in the first place. I also feel that they should have a right to choose the life that they want. You know: “Pursuit of Happiness” and all of that…

As some would be quick to point out, there are some people who spend years and years in Cegeps, unsuccessfully looking for the perfect program for them, and end up working at low-paying jobs all their lives. These may sound like lost souls but I really think that they are more likely to contribute to society as a whole than the equivalent long-term “undecided majors” in U.S. universities.

Because Cegeps’ individual costs are relatively low, Cegep students often do experiment a lot with courses in different fields. It may seem like a stretch but my hunch is that this experimental tendency might be one of the reasons is so productive in creative domains like musical productions and circus shows. If it weren’t for Cegeps, I would never have spent two years of my life in intensive training as a musician. I already (since age 13) that I wanted to become an anthropologist and my DEC in music wasn’t necessary for anything I ever did. But it greatly enhanced my life more than many university programs ever do.

Cegeps often count significant numbers of what U.S. college people tend to call “non-traditional students” (older than the “typical” post-K-12 undergrad). These include fascinating people like mature women who are getting a Cegep degree as part of a life-changing experience (say, after a divorce). Because of this, the average age in a Cegep can be higher than in the typical U.S. graduate school. It also means that Cegep students coming directly from secondary schools are getting accustomed to interacting with people whose life experience may involve parenthood, career development, and long-term personal relationships.

For diverse reasons, Cegeps are the locus of most of the active student movements in Quebec, some of which have led to important strikes and other forms of student protest. Student strikes have had a deep impact in Quebec’s recent history. Not that students have forced long-lasting policy changes by themselves but many members of recent generations of Quebeckers have gotten a taste for political involvement through student protest. Though I was living in Indiana at the time (2004-2005), I have seen important effects of the most recent student strike on some dimensions of Quebec society. At the time, around 200 000 Quebec students went on strike in protest of the provincial government’s changes to the financial aid system. At one point, 100 000 students had taken to the streets to march as part of the student movement. The government eventually backed down on the changes it was implementing and people still talk about the effects of this strike. It is likely that the strike will not have any effect on any specific political party and political scientists would probably say that the strike failed to produce a “political class.” Yet, and this is an important point, the target of the strike wasn’t a political party but a perceived discrepancy between the ideals of two generations. In my personal opinion, such a social movement is much more important than partisan politics. In such a context, it isn’t surprising to see many young Quebeckers become social activists, may it be for environmental causes or to fight some global inequalities. They become like this in Cegeps. Since the majority of secondary school students eventually go to Cegeps, this social involvement has nothing to do with the elitism of “Revolutions” of the early nationalist era. Cegep students are the perfect example of individualistic (one would say «libertaire») social engagement.

Not only are Cegep students socially involved but they are usually considered to be socially mature.

Quite significantly, many young adults in Quebec learn how to drink by the time they finish Cegep. Drinking age is 18 here and people usually start Cegep at age 17. As has been happening in different parts of the world for the longest time, cafés and bars around Cegep and university campuses tend to be important meeting space for students. Coffee is the drink of choice for many students during the day but alcoholic drinks (including craft beer, nowadays) bring students together for long discussions in the evening and nights. Because student alcohol consumption is widely accepted, students never feel the need to hide in residence halls or “greek houses” to enjoy each other’s company.

In such a context, it’s easy to understand why university students in Quebec are very generally seen as responsible adults. In the U.S., I’ve heard both students and professors describe university students of any age as “kids,” a term I find very symptomatic of tricky educational and academic issues. As I see universities as a place to do serious academic work and not as a place for parents to drop their kids until they grow up, I have many reasons to support Quebec’s Cegep system or anything which may achieve the same results. 🙂