Transitioning from CEGEP
Exploring Quebec’s unique university prerequisite
With its pride of place in the heart of downtown Montreal, McGill is often seen as a global university, not solely a Quebec or Montreal institution. However, students from the province of Quebec make up a large portion of the university, comprising over two thirds of Canadian undergraduates and just over 40 per cent of students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels in the Fall 2012 incoming class. Students entering McGill from in-province generally apply from a Collège d’enseignement général et professionel (CEGEP), a stage of the Quebec educational system that functions as a bridge between the end of high school and university, employment, or other alternatives thereafter. At McGill, applicants with a CEGEP diploma generally receive 30 credits, or the equivalent of a full year of classes.
The CEGEP system consists of 48 public institutions throughout Quebec and is a feature unique to the province. It includes five that provide instruction in English and several other private colleges which provide the same diploma credentials but are not officially CEGEPs. Since Ontario phased out its “grade 13” program a decade ago—though many students still repeat grade 12 classes—no other jurisdiction in the U.S. or Canada sets up for another year of education beyond grade 12 and prior to university. Students in Quebec enter CEGEP after grade 11 and attend either a two-year university preparatory program which gives a Diplome d’études collégiales (Diploma of College Studies), or a three year vocational program which awards an Attestation d’études collégiales (Attestation of College Studies in English); the latter is designed to facilitate direct entry into the workforce in a particular trade. The vocational degree, however, is not designed to preclude later entry to university.
The CEGEP system was established in 1967 in the wake of recommendations made by the Parent Commission, a wide-reaching inquiry into the state of education in Quebec instituted by then-Premier Jean Lesage. This was just one in a sweeping array of changes to Quebec society in the 1960s, often known as the “Quiet Revolution.” The creation of the CEGEP also represented an equalization of the length of French and English education in the province. Previously, the French educational system consisted of three extra years of schooling through the end of university, while the English system totalled 15 years. After the introduction of CEGEP, both languages had 16 years of instruction.
The abolition of the CEGEP system has been suggested multiple times in recent years.; In 2003, the Fédération des commissions scolaires du Québec (Federation of Quebec School Boards) released a report recommending the abolition of the CEGEP level, and in its place adding a year to high school. The argument in these cases has largely centred around the cost savings that could come from removing this additional administrative apparatus.
The value of the CEGEP program, however, has been defended by many stakeholders, and there are currently no serious plans to revamp or eliminate the system. Donna Varrica, communications coordinator at Dawson College—an English-language CEGEP—argues that the system performs a valuable service in preparing students for university-level
“The expectations placed on the student are more rigorous than high school,” she said. “There is no hand-holding, there
is no one to ensure that you go to classes, do your work, [or] track your progress on a day-to-day level. Students are taught by teachers with minimally a [master’s degree and] a large percentage [of instructors at Dawson] have PhDs. [These instructors] chose to stay in the college system to focus on teaching as they were less interested in research.”
Varrica also emphasized that CEGEP offers affordable access to post-secondary education—public CEGEPs like Dawson are heavily subsidized.
According to Varrica, the education offered at CEGEPs also represents a unique blend of the high school and university experience.
“Most CEGEPs as a rule have smaller class sizes than in university—40 maximum,” Varrica noted. “While that is different than university, it serves the purpose of giving students more individual attention to tackle subjects that are new to them and more difficult, [...] such as philosophy, [and] the social sciences, [that] they may not have been exposed to in high school. This method better prepares them for university. They are dealing with curriculum that is often university-level.”
Despite the academic preparation, adjusting to the workload of university from CEGEP can still be jarring for some students.
Ryan Cons, a U3 political science student at McGill who attended Dawson, said he thought that even though the program helped him develop a sense of independence, there was still a disconnect.
“The level of material was good, but the expectations and the amount of work was nothing like what’s at McGill,” Cons said. “An essay I would have handed in at Dawson and gotten maybe high 80s on would maybe get a B- here.”
Matthew Eidinger, also a U3 political science student, had a similar view.
“I feel that going to high school and then CEGEP [helped me] make the transition in that I got to learn a lot of themes in university,” Eidinger said. “But the methodology in learning those themes was lacking, [there was] a jump that shouldn’t be there.”
Eidinger said that his CEGEP, Vanier College, did enable him to learn about many of the basic liberal arts concepts that students in a four-year program would only learn about in first year.
“[However,] the methodology [of how] it was taught and the workload was lacking,” Eidinger said. He also noted that the reading load was inadequate preparation for McGill.
The jump from a French-language CEGEP to an English-language university also heightens these transition issues. Joan Barrett, the students affairs advisor in the Faculty of Education, stated the recommendations that advisors often make for those who studied at French CEGEPs.
“The Student Affairs Office (SAO) and departmental advisers refer [students] to the services at the First-Year Office and advise them of the fact that they can submit papers in French,” Barrett said. “Depending on the student and the program, it might be suggested that they take 12 credits instead of 15. We would also communicate to them in French as needed.”
U2 physical and occupational therapy student Ariane Vaillancourt faced a significant language transition from her CEGEP, Collège Ahuntsic. Switching from French to English was difficult for her at the beginning because of the nature of in-class interactions.
“One of the teachers [will] ask a question and you need to really answer fast,” Vaillancourt said. “And sometimes the words just don’t come out in English—I will say something in French [instead].” While Vaillancourt said she had been speaking English since she was six, she expressed the necessity of “[setting] your brain to English mode,” which she wasn’t able to do as quickly at the time.
Marion Champoux-Pellegrin, a U2 Arts student, also had difficulties transitioning from Collège de Maisonneuve to McGill.
“[The language transition] was an odd one,” Champoux-Pellegrin said. “Because I’ve always been bilingual, I’ve always watched movies and read books in English, I’ve always talked to my parents in English [...] it’s more the vocabulary [that was an issue]. Focusing on one language which wasn’t French [...] and catching up with all these words being thrown out in lecture [was a challenge].”
McGill does, however provide some programs to help students handle the transition from CEGEP to university. Barrett outlined one initiative, the CEGEP Student Information session (CSI), which is designed to help CEGEP students become acquainted with university. She also cited other options, such as academic skills workshops during orientation week, as well as departmental advising sessions.
Barrett noted that advisors from all of the faculties often have conversations with CEGEP advisors about ways to
smooth the transition, though she did not have any recommendations for adapting programs at the CEGEP level.
However, students such as Sarah Gold, U2 international development studies, are critical about the transition workshops coming out of CEGEP.
“There was one workshop that was held in May to explain registration, which was completely confusing,” said Gold. “We still had to figure it out ourselves.”
Kelly Guy, a U3 psychology student, took a similar view.
“I would have liked to see a little more presence in the CEGEPs, perhaps even past students coming back and just speaking casually to CEGEP students,” Guy said.
Despite these challenges, students who came out of CEGEP havea positive outlook on the role it played in their education. It provided a transition period where they could be immersed in some of the basic underlying concepts of university-level learning without the complete loss of supervision and small class sizes that go along with education at a large institution such as McGill.
“I found that high school prepared [us] for CEGEP, and CEGEP prepared us for university,” Guy said. “The workload was heavy, but nothing that a little extra push couldn’t help.”