Quebec needs to decide what kind of society it wants to be
VP External NDP Concordia
The debate over the future of Quebec’s post-secondary education system is not just a squabble over numbers, but a fundamental struggle between two opposing ideological models of society.
The underfunding of our education system and the lifting of the tuition freeze are just part of this government’s neo-liberal agenda to erode and privatize our public services.
Likewise, the movement for free education is grounded in the concept of Quebec being a progressive socialist state, where education and health care are fundamental rights – making them more accessible ultimately benefits society as a whole.
Given the inherent conflict between these ideas, the centre cannot hold. This has been clearly demonstrated this past fall, with the failure of the “Keep the Freeze” campaign to form a following, despite having the massive resources of the FECQ/FEUQ/CFS coalition behind it. The issue was kept in the public eye, not by this coalition of bureaucrats, but by the 60,000 students across the province that went on strike for free education.
What can we hope to gain by standing for the freeze? This is not the product of some arbitrary notion that tuition should be exactly $1,668.40 forever. The freeze was a compromise between students fighting for greater access to education and the privileged elites who opposed them. Students are in an inherently weak position in this struggle and we may be forced to compromise again. If our starting position is the status quo, then any compromise will be a step backwards.
More importantly, in order to force any action from the government, students must appeal to Quebec’s population by presenting a clear choice. The choice between continued neo-liberal attacks on our public services or a return to the socialist values that generations of Quebec students and workers have fought for tooth and nail.
There is no question that we have the resources to do this. It comes down to what our priorities are as a society. Eliminating tuition fees would cost the government $550 million. This represents less than one per cent of their budget. To put this in context, the highly unpopular taxes cuts for the rich introduced in the last provincial budget cost $900 million a year.
The struggle for accessible education must be fought to its end, where education is seen not as a privilege, but as a basic right; where any committed individual can advance their knowledge, regardless of their economic condition and social status. It should not just be an economic gain for the masses, but also a transformation of social consciousness. This is why we must fight for free education.
Letting tuition rise: the key to accessibility
In the last two decades, universities throughout Canada have seen the expansion of faculties were vastly outstripped by the growth of student bodies; they have seen their performance fall across almost all measures in comparison to other OECD countries, and have been pushed deep into debt and deficit as government transfers have failed to match rising costs.
On this sole point I agree with my more socialist compatriots (comrades, perhaps): Canadian post-secondary institutions need immediate and significant investment by governments if they are to be sustainable – indeed, if they are to survive. Where I disagree with them, is that I do not see the problems besetting our schools as an excuse for students to line their pockets.
The failing of low-tuition arguments is not merely the sort of self-important myopia that allows them to see all education transfers as their prerogative; more important is the pernicious tendency low-tuition systems have of placing limits on accessibility, excluding potential students from even the possibility of enrollment. After all, the cost of educating a student does not change with the price of tuition, and it must be paid by some combination of students’ and governments’ contributions. Since government revenues are largely fixed, the greater amount that they pay per student, the fewer students among whom they can divide their budgets – and consequently the fewer students that universities are permitted to admit.
It is no coincidence that those provinces that charge the highest average tuition in Canada (Nova Scotia and Ontario) are also the provinces with the highest rates of per capita university attendance, while Quebec, with its low, low tuition sends a far lower proportion of its population to university.
The real limit to accessibility is not what students must pay to get into a classroom; it is whether they are allowed into the class at any price.
In American universities, where average tuition is higher than Canada, and where attendance follows suit, it is common practice at the most expensive schools to use the tuition paid by the wealthy majority to subsidize the education of their poorer neighbours. In other systems, such redistribution is called “progressive taxation”, and it is everywhere the darling of the left wing.
It is telling that the only time social justice “progressives” are against such taxation is when they are obliged to pay its costs.
Adding to the hypocrisy of “social justice” arguments in favour of low tuition, it is worth noting that government funding of low tuition stands directly opposed to the furthering of ostensibly “progressive” goals. That is to say, every dollar spent on tuition is a dollar that could otherwise have been better spent on social housing, welfare, or on funding for food banks.
I for one do not place high value on such goals, but not even I would go so far as to suggest that the money to provide students’ free lunch should come at the cost of food for the genuinely hungry.
Low tuition is, at base, a scheme of exclusion – of government subsidy for the chosen few, at the expense of the wider public. In those countries where it has reached its nadir (France and Germany come to mind) the cheapness of tuition is always and everywhere matched by the narrowness of access to a university education for all but those able to wield influence within the system.
Better that Canadian students should take responsibility for their own educations, for their own future incomes, and for the security of the system from which they now benefit.
Quebec students need to keep the tuition freeze
CSU VP COmmunications
Understanding tuition fees and university funding is a complicated issue. Balancing the high cost of a proper system of post-secondary education and the accessibility that is required to have a strong society is no simple task. Although a number of tuition and funding models have been considered over the past few years, the model that works best is returning tuition fees to the level they were between 1993 and 2006 and maintaining the tuition freeze that has, for the past thirteen years, made Québec’s universities the most accessible in Canada.
It is no secret that Quebec’s universities are underfunded to the tune of about $400 million. There are those who say that the solution is higher tuition fees. This argument is predicated on the assumption that increased tuition fees will result in more funding for universities. Experience however, shows this presumption to be false. In Britain funding for education has actually dropped over the past decade. This is despite the fact before 1996 no tuition fees were charged at all. British students went from paying nothing to having substantial tuition fees with their universities ending up with less funding than before fees were implemented.
Closer to home, during the ’90s in Ontario, while tuition fees rose by 165%, government funding was cut by $ 400 million. Essentially, the government cut funding almost dollar for dollar with fee increases. In both cases students were paying more, and getting less.
The only way to guarantee adequate and stable funding for our universities and colleges is through the government. Some argue that there simply isn’t enough money. Again, this premise lacks support from the facts. This year, as a result of changes in federal government policy, Quebec received $700 million in additional transfers from the federal government . Instead of investing this new money in education and health care – where it was really needed – the government chose to implement a $950 million dollar tax cut. This is just one example of governments demonstrating a lack of will to support accessible education. The point is that the money to properly fund Universities is there, the only thing missing is governmental will and vision.
Statistics Canada’s Youth in Transition Survey found that, for high school graduates who did not go on to university or college, the most frequently reported barrier was “financial reasons.” And studies from the U.S. (the preferred model of many who argue for higher tuition fees) put an even finer point on the deterrent effects of higher fees. Researchers Michael Paulsen and Edward St. John reported in the Journal of Higher Education that for every $1,000 increase in tuition fees, the re-enrollment of students from working families was reduced by nineteen percent. Anyone who claims to have a concern for low participation rates must accept lower – not higher – tuition fees as an integral part of the solution.
Before the current Liberal government decided to raise tuition fees, they commissioned a report to look at various funding models. That report, produced by the Ministry of Education, Leisure and Sports, found that as a result of the tuition free increase currently taking place university enrollment would drop by at least 6,000. This is coming at a time when the government estimates that this year it will need to create over 600,000 new jobs of which 75 per cent will require a post-secondary certificate of some kind.
Proponents of higher tuition fees and greater student debt often correctly point out that university graduates are likely to have higher incomes. Beyond ignoring the fact that, on average, university graduates rely far less on other social programs such as health care and social assistance and are almost half as likely to be unemployed, their logic fails when one considers that both Quebec and Canada already have a system whereby people who make more money pay more; its called progressive taxation.
The goal of a public education system is to offer all Canadians the opportunity to educate themselves, and in turn, participate in and contribute back to society. Access to a university education should be limited only by ability and desire, not by financial means and the best means to ensuring that is through reinstating the tuition freeze that has kept Quebec’s tuition accessible for the past thirteen years.