Students Don’t Know how Good They have it: Western provinces are subsidizing cheap tuition in Quebec while their own students pay twice as much to attend university

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre, Media Appearances, Quebec

What is it about Quebec university students that, from one cohort to the next, they don't know how good they have it?

Nearly 175,000 students are currently boycotting classes, for which they pay only about 10 per cent of the cost, in protest against the Charest government's intention to increase undergraduate tuition fees for Quebec students by $325 a year over the next five years.

In taking to the streets – invading métro stations, disrupting traffic and even sacking the office of Education Minister Line Beauchamp – students have crossed the line from expressing their own freedom of speech and assembly to disrupting the lives of the very citizens and taxpayers who pay their bills.

Beauchamp, for one, isn't for the turning. "Don't expect me to give in to intimidation," she said in a weekend interview.

Good, the government needs to show some steel. This is not Quebec's Arab Spring; it's only a step removed from anarchy.

And here's the thing: even when the tuition increases are fully implemented, for a total increase of $1,625 over the five-year period, Quebec will in all likelihood still have the lowest tuition rates in the country. Only Newfoundland and Labrador is even close to Quebec's rockbottom tuition fees.

The current average undergrad fee in Quebec of $2,519 is less than half the national average of $5,366, according to Statistics Canada. In Ontario, the average tuition is $6,640. In oil-rich Alberta, tuition is $5,662, in Saskatchewan it's $5,601, while in British Columbia it's $4,852.

This is a sore point in Western Canada. The three Western provinces pay the lion's share of equalization, $14 billion a year to six recipient provinces, of which Quebec received $8.5 billion in fiscal 2011, before declining to $7.8 billion in fiscal 2012, for an average of $8.1 billion over the last two years.

At some level, the Western provinces are subsidizing cheap tuition in Quebec, while their own students pay twice as much. In terms of a united federation, the effects are potentially corrosive.

The idea of equalization was to enable recipient provinces to provide comparable services, not cheaper ones.

Quebec insists it allocates its equalization receipts to other services, but there's only one budget and equalization is part of it. If you add $7.4 billion in the current fiscal year, Quebec's equalization transfers from the fees come to $23.7 billion over the last three years, according to Finance Canada.

In all, Quebec derives 25 per cent of its government revenue from federal transfers, twice as much as Ontario and B.C., at 13 and 12 per cent respectively, and 3.5 times as much as Alberta at seven per cent. Which might explain why Quebec has 217 doctors per 100,000 population, second-highest in the country, while Alberta has only 197, just above the national average of 192. These figures are from a 2010 study by Ben Eisen and Mark Milke of the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

With only 20 per cent of the daycare-eligible population, Quebec has 50 per cent of all the daycare spaces in the country. Alberta is ranked eighth, and B.C. seventh. Don't get them started out west about Quebec's $7-adaycare. Someone is paying for it.

The point of the study is that these two have provinces, along with Ontario, are actually have-nots when it comes to a range of government services, or at least lagging rather than leading.

Back to the tuition issue. Some of the students actually think university should be free. After all, the CEGEPs are free. Even many private high schools have their tuition subsidized by Quebec, the main reason privateschool enrolment rates in this province are more than twice the national average.

Does lower tuition produce better outcomes in the way of higher participation and graduation rates? Nope. Six provinces have a higher graduation rate, as McGill Principal Heather Munroe-Blum and others have noted.

It's also a given that no student in Quebec is turned away because of need. Student aid already works well here, and will be even more generous because of the government's commitment to allocate 35 per cent of the tuition increase, or nearly $575 of the $1,625 over five years, to the program.

Finally, students are paying less now, adjusted for inflation, than my cohort did in 1968-69, when I was in my senior year on what is now the Loyola campus of Concordia University. Tuition then was $600 per year, and many of us also had bursary money, which naturally became beer money.

All these years later, my 21-year-old daughter is paying less than I did to attend university. And before she transferred to Concordia, she was attending American University in Washington, where the tuition was $34,000 a year.

It helps to have a bit of perspective on this.