How the debt-ridden experience of Ontario students is informing Quebec’s tuition protests.
Over the past several weeks, hundreds of thousands of Quebec students have taken to the streets to prevent a $1,625 increase in tuition fees. The protests probably irk many Ontarians, who have grown accustomed to paying the highest fees in the country.
But it’s precisely that fate Quebec students are trying to avoid. They are protesting a model of financing post-secondary education that has failed in Ontario, and defending fundamental values that have been eroded by successive Ontario governments.
Critics of the protests have painted Quebec students as spoiled brats (after all, they pay a measly $2,500 a year in tuition). This argument misses the point entirely. The “Non1625” campaign isn’t just about stopping this particular fee increase – it’s also about stopping the ones that are destined to follow it.
In the mid-1990s, Ontario, like most other provinces, began increasing tuition fees. At first, the hikes were modest, which probably pacified Ontario’s less-militant students. But overtime, tuition growth has been massive.
Today, Ontario’s undergraduate tuition fees are nearly three times higher than Quebec’s, and in professional programs they are between five and eight times higher. In this context, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s tuition rebate is too little, too late. The lesson for Quebec students is that accepting any increase – no matter how small or gently implemented – is akin to accepting death by a thousand cuts.
As a result, the protesters can’t be accused of simply looking out for their own self-interest; those who will bear the brunt of unfrozen fees are in elementary school, not CEGEP. Instead, the students are motivated by an important matter of principle – namely, the right to free public higher education, which is enshrined in both the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and international human-rights law. In a country as rich as ours, betraying this principle is a choice we make. So what justifies this choice?
A common argument in favour of higher tuition fees is that students reap most of the benefits of post-secondary education (in the form of better salaries and job prospects), and should thus pay a larger share of post-secondary education costs. This argument is flawed on three levels.
First, if the balance between public and private benefits is an appropriate basis for allocating the costs of post-secondary education, then we should apply this standard to other programs, as well. But we don’t do that. For instance, the “returns” of a life-saving heart transplant are much greater for the patient than society, yet the cost of the operation is covered by Medicare. Singling out post-secondary education in this way is arbitrary.
Second, the claim that a university degree is the ticket to a comfortable life is overstated. In 2006, Canadian university graduates aged 24-29 earned an average annual salary of $32,974 – hardly a fortune. Add to this an average debt load upon graduation of nearly $20,000, and the future looks even less rosy.
Third, in a knowledge-based economy in which collective prosperity depends on having a highly skilled workforce, making post-secondary education more of an individual responsibility makes little sense.
Those who defend tuition hikes sometimes say that the cost of post-secondary education has little bearing on accessibility. While it’s true that many other factors affect whether a person goes to university, that doesn’t mean tuition fees aren’t one of them.
According to Statistics Canada, after Ontario deregulated tuition fees in professional programs, the participation rates of students whose parents had a graduate or professional degree (a proxy for socioeconomic status) increased significantly, largely at the expense of students whose parents had only college or undergraduate degrees. This evidence suggests that the impact of tuition increases on accessibility shouldn’t be dismissed.
But even if that were not the case, it’s far from clear that the Ontario model, which tries to offset higher fees with loans and grants, is the most efficient way to finance post-secondary education. A massive bureaucracy is needed to administer financial-assistance programs, and people inevitably fall through the cracks.
All tuition increases do is transfer the burden of financing post-secondary education from the state to the individual. This could have negative economic repercussions. For example, more borrowing by students (and parents) risks increasing already high household debt levels, which Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney has warned are the “biggest domestic risk” to the economy.
Furthermore, while some claim that the tuition hikes will give universities more resources, thus improving the quality of graduates and attracting more jobs to the province, the basis for such optimism is weak. Again, the evidence from Ontario is sobering.
Despite charging the highest tuition fees in the country, Ontario’s universities actually spend less per student than their Quebec counterparts. Furthermore, Ontario’s youth unemployment rate is one of the highest in the country, right up there with Quebec’s. As a result, Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s claim that his tuition hike will produce a “world-class” post-secondary education system is a dubious one.
Will raising tuition fees help Quebec balance its budget? Perhaps. But increasing costs for students is hardly the most fair or economically sound way to accomplish this important goal. Rather than burden Quebec’s future knowledge workers, the Baby Boomers, whose livelihoods were built on the largesse of the Quiet Revolution, should be the ones to sacrifice.
Quebec students aren’t selfishly protesting a modest tuition increase. They’re fighting a policy that is economically and socially unjustifiable. They see the long-term implications that their counterparts in Ontario failed to see 15 years ago.
If these students succeed in avoiding Ontario’s fate, Quebecers will thank them for decades to come.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.