With cries of bloquons la hausse, a small army of Quebec students has taken to the streets in recent months to protest tuition increases. Jean Charest's government has announced it will raise tuition fees in the province by $325 per year for five years, to a total of $3,793 per year in 20162017. The change will take Quebec from having the lowest tuition rate in the country to – still having the lowest tuition rate in the country.
Student activists have orchestrated a series of strike actions in opposition to the tuition increase. The name of the game has been hyperbole: accusations that Charest seeks to implement "American-style" privatized education, and claims that accessibility for low-income students will be ravaged by the changes.
Quebec's artificially low tuition rate is a failed policy. It has done nothing to increase accessibility, the raison d'être of rockbottom tuition, and has only left Quebec's universities poorer than their national counterparts.
The province's 2011-2012 budget frames the universityfinancing crisis in stark terms. Post-secondary education in this province was underfunded by $650-million dollars in 2010, up from $373-million in 2002. Less money is spent on operations in university budgets than in any other province in the country. Collectively, Quebec's universities accumulated a deficit of $483million in 2009.
In response to this crisis, the Charest government has proposed a financing plan to inject provincial universities with $850million in new revenue by 20152016. As part of this new plan, students are being asked to pay a fair share of their own education. They certainly don't pay their fair share now. In 2008-2009, a paltry 12.7% of total university revenues came from tuition fees. Even after the supposedly apocalyptic increases starting this year, that number will increase only to 16.9%. By the time that five-year period ends, Quebec students will be paying the same cost they were paying in 1968.
And therein lies the unfairness of the current policy: Students, many of whom come from highincome families, are paying only 13¢ on the dollar for the service they are consuming. More than 60% of current revenue, meanwhile, comes from government sources. Canadian and Quebec provincial taxpayers, the majority of whom have never attended university and will never send their own kids to university, are being asked to cough up to pay a very expensive bill.
Strike activists have argued that despite the imbalance of payment, low tuition is an important part of Quebec's grand social contract. Post-secondary education, they say, should be accessible to all. But that argument falls apart on closer inspection.
Statistics show that the children of low-income families are less likely to attend university than their counterparts from richer families. This reality, no doubt, negatively affects income mobility. But is Quebec really addressing that issue through artificially low tuition fees?
The answer is a resounding no. A Statistics Canada study in 2007 by Marc Frenette attempted to answer the question of why such a large gap exists in university attendance based on income levels. Parental influence, high-school quality and other social factors accounted for a whopping 84% of the difference.
What about financial con-straints? That accounted for a measly 12% of the difference. If the student movement is truly concerned about improving access to university for low-income families, an already minuscule tuition fee is the least of their problems.
There is simply no observed correlation in Canada between lower tuition fees and higher rates of university participation. A study by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy found that the three provinces with the lowest tuition in the country (Quebec, Manitoba and Newfoundland) all suffered from the largest gaps of participation between low-income and high-income students. Nova Scotia, with the highest tuition rate in the country, also had the highest rate of university participation.
This is not to say that higher tuition leads to higher accessibility. Certainly, the Frontier Centre's researchers note that tuition can be so high it becomes a genuine barrier to access. Canada, however, is nowhere near that point, and Quebec certainly will be nowhere near it once these tuition increases are implemented. The main barrier to university education in Canada is a social one, and emerges in the formative years of a student's time in elementary and high school, long before he or she is asked to pay college tuition.
It is a favourite pastime of the Quebec student movement to look to the European model of free tuition as an ideal system. But Europe is having its own problems. In Norway, free university comes with a different cost: Twelve months of unpaid military service.
In countries where students pay some portion of the cost of their own education, the money follows the customer. Universities can rely on a predictable baseline of revenue – which permits them to embark on longterm projects, such as building infrastructure. Where no tuition exists, universities live on the whim of government for their financing. Education mandarins in France, for example, show great financial favouritism to that country's larger and more prestigious universities, like the famous grandes écoles. Meanwhile, smaller universities suffer from chronic neglect and underfunding. In Sweden, where universities are starved for new sources of revenue, tuition fees are now being levied on students from outside the country.
Despite promised tuition increases, the Quebec government continues to be generous to students. The government has pledged to negotiate agreements with universities to ensure that 35% of new revenues are earmarked specifically for student financial assistance. The rest will go toward much needed improvements in the quality of Quebec's universities. Over the long term, that will mean smarter and better educated graduates, and more highly skilled participants in the labour market. It will also mean more students receiving a more fulfilling post-secondary education.
The proposed changes to Quebec's tuition structure are long overdue. Ignore the overheated rhetoric from student strikers: On the tuition issue, Jean Charest must go full steam ahead.
Brendan Steven is a third year political science & Canadian studies student at McGill University. He is a co-founder of McGill's Moderate Political Action Committee (ModPAC), an organization mobilizing students opposed to the strike. For more information about ModPAC, visit their Facebook page, or email the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org .