Recently, thousands of students took to the streets of Montreal to protest the Quebec government’s decision to increase university tuition fees. Protestors described the tuition hike as an injustice, and complained higher tuition will restrict access to higher education for less affluent members of society. The truth is that the tuition increase will have a negligible impact on access, and Quebec’s students have no legitimate grievance concerning tuition.
Quebec’s tuition levels are currently the lowest in the country, and will still be among the lowest even after the planned increases. For the 2010 academic year, the average tuition for full-time undergraduates in Canadian universities was $5,100. In Quebec, the average undergraduate tuition was only $2, 400 per year. The planned tuition increases are modest. Fees will increase by $325 per year for the next five years. This means that in 2017, Quebec’s average tuition will still be only two thirds of the present Canadian average. The province’s students will not be hard done by.
Quebec’s student organizations have argued a tuition freeze is necessary to ensure access to higher education for young adults from low-income families. However, the best available evidence provides no support for such claims. Some of the provinces that have the very highest tuition levels also have the highest rates of university participation for young adults from low-income families. Ontario and Nova Scotia, for example, have high tuition by Canadian standards, but boast low-income university participation rates well above the national average. There is no compelling evidence that rock-bottom tuition levels such as Quebec’s lead to higher rates of university participation for youth from less affluent families, or that a modest tuition increase will have any measurable impact on access.
When people decide whether to pursue higher education, they weigh a variety of costs and benefits. Most importantly, they consider the foregone wages associated with remaining outside of the full-time workforce for several years, as well as the economic benefits associated with university participation in terms of higher lifetime earnings. These costs and benefits are large, and the notion that modestly increasing tuition fees will have a significant impact on university participation decisions doesn’t match up with the evidence and doesn’t even pass the laugh test.
There are good reasons for governments to shoulder some of the costs associated with higher education. Society generally benefits when individuals obtain a university education, and so it is smart policy for governments to partially subsidize that activity. However, there are also substantial private benefits enjoyed by the students themselves, and it is entirely fair to ask the recipients of those benefits to ease the burden on taxpayers by directly covering some of the costs. Setting tuition levels is an exercise in setting the appropriate balance between public and private financial contributions.
Part of the reason many students complain whenever that balance is shifted even slightly in the direction of private financing is that most of them underestimate the size of the tuition subsidies they currently receive. A study released this year by Higher Education Strategy Associates shows that most students substantially underestimate the role of public subsidies in financing the university system.
Across Canada, the average expenditure on subsidies per full time university student is $13, 481. In Quebec, that number is $12, 756. When the study’s authors asked students how much they thought the government spends on subsidies per student, just 14 per cent either gave an answer that was approximately right or one which overestimated the subsidies. The remaining 86 per cent of students underestimated the size of government subsidies.
Perhaps if protesting students were aware of just how much taxpayers are contributing for their education, they would be embarrassed to howl with anger upon being asked to chip in a little more themselves.
Tuition should be regulated to prevent gouging, and should be subsidized to incent human capital development and ensure access. However, students themselves benefit the most from higher education and it’s only fair that they help cover the costs. Even after the planned tuition increases, Quebec’s students will still be getting a sweet, taxpayer-subsidized deal. Students in the province have nothing to feel outraged over. In fact, they should feel grateful for the taxpayer subsidies that will continue to fund the majority of the costs associated with their education.