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Where ye be on tuition freeze?

by Archives February 7, 2007

Chronic underfunding of Quebec’s post-secondary schools is now no longer a reality we can ignore. Larger classrooms, insufficient laboratories and inadequate buildings are just some of the ways students are being cheated from having the best in preparation for future success.

Relying on the government to improve the quality of our education puts schools in a position of dependency that has left students disappointed. As much as the government should invest more into education, the likelihood of post-education institutions getting the level of funding needed lessens as the government faces increasing demands from every sector, especially a straining healthcare system.

At McGill last October, Concordia President Claude Lajeunesse said Quebec already “invests more per capita in education – 7.5 per cent of GDP, according to the Ministry of Education – than all other Canadian jurisdictions except the Maritimes.”

He has joined the chorus of a growing number of university officials in Quebec, including McGill University principal Heather Munroe-Blum, calling for equal tuition rates across Canada and saying it is time to lift the freeze and responsibly increase tuition because our education system is in a state of “crisis.”

The leading rhetoric on the other side of the debate is that education is a right for all and not a privilege for the rich. This kind of thinking is attractive but misleading. If education is just another social benefit then there is no motivation for those who would gain the greatest benefits from a higher level of education to invest substantially into their possible success. The key word: investment. In economics, those who invest reap the return.

Another misconception is the belief that an increase in tuition will lead to a decrease in enrollment, especially for the less privileged. The evidence would suggest otherwise.

A general increase in tuition across Canada from 1995 to 2002 saw gains of about 50 per cent in all undergraduate disciplines. In the professional disciplines, Canadians saw fees rise 80 per cent in law, 160 per cent in medicine and triple in dentistry. By far the largest jump in tuition was seen in Ontario, where fees in professional programs were deregulated in 1998.

In a September 2005 report released by Statistics Canada, it was found the only socio-economic group that did not see a rise in enrollment in this period were students whose parents had post-secondary qualifications below a graduate level. The study reported that enrollment increased from 2.4 per cent to 5.2 per cent for students of professional parents. For students from the least educated families, whose parents had no post-secondary education, the likelihood of enrollment rose from 0.5 per cent to 1.2 per cent over the period, which the report attributed possibly to an increase in student aid.

But since the tuition freeze began in Quebec in 1994, student enrollment has steadily decreased. The true reasons for non-enrollment go far beyond affordability. Another Statistics Canada survey found that only 26 per cent of Canadian students who had never attended post-secondary education cited their financial situation as the reason. Sociological factors such as background, parents’ education, high school performance and parents’ expectations are also factors that cause non-enrollment. Nine per cent of respondents stated they lacked interest in pursuing further studies.

Using data from Statistics Canada’s 1991 and 1995 School Leavers Surveys, a study released in January 2005 found that each additional year of parental education increases the likelihood of their children attending post-secondary education by as much as five percentage points. It would appear that levels of a parent’s education, rather than economics, has a more direct impact on whether young people go on to university.

Higher education is a market and in order for universities like Concordia and McGill to compete nationally our institutions must have the freedom to set higher tuition fees in order to be able to offer the same services. Prestigious schools in the U.S. can charge enormous fees because graduates get their value in a degree from their institution. ‘Harvard’ says it all. For Concordia to begin competing on an international level, serious investment is needed.

If Concordia wants to keep up with this market and experience growth as an institution, tuition freeze will be its first barrier.

If increased tuition fees leads to improving conditions, building construction, research funding, faculty recruitment and higher student enrollment, all to Concordia’s benefit, it is only fair that students share part of the cost while securing the right to have a say in the decision-making.

It is a precarious assumption that continuing the tuition freeze in Quebec’s universities could be a good thing for Concordia’s future.

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