For more than 100 days, students in the province of Quebec have been protesting Jean Charest’s Liberal government’s planned tuition increase of 75% over five years. As the Montreal Gazette’s timeline on tuition issues shows, the Charest administration has slowly changed its position on support for higher education since 2003 under pressure from university administrators and ongoing government budget pressures.
The standoff between universities, the government and students has escalated recently with ramped up protests, an oppressive law banning students from protesting, clashes with police and hundreds of arrests. While most people agree that the new law is unconstitutional, support for the students objectives is mixed. Some are standing behind the students in complete “solidarité” with their goals, while others think they are taking things too far.
What is the Quebec Government Proposing?
IRIS, a socio-economic research organization, provides a summary of the government’s tuition hike plans:
In its last budget, the Quebec government planned to hike tuition fees so that it will soon cost students $3,793 a year for university studies — or an increase of nearly 75% ($1,625) over five years. If we take into account previous increases (from 2007-2008 to 2011-2012, tuition will have gone up $2,125 (127%) in ten years, jumping from $1,668 to $3,793. And the uptrend will continue past 2017 because tuition fees are slated to be indexed to inflation, even if student earning power does not follow this rise in the cost of living.
The IRIS document goes on to explain that the government intends to use increased tuition fees to earmark additional money for universities, however only slightly more than half of that will be used to improve teaching conditions and student services.
Are Low Tuition Fees a “Free Ride” or a Right?
Although everyone understands the need for governments to seek balanced budgets, there is a divide in Quebec between the government, which states that the tuition increases are essential, and students who see the possibility to pursue other avenues. The Graduate Student Association at Carleton University put together a video outlining some of the key facts that the government is not sharing, positioning this as a choice between investing in an educated, thoughtful society or asking students to pay for continued tax cuts for the banks and the rich.
On his blog, Alberta Conservative Member of Parliament Brent Rathgeber expressed his thoughts about the protests and the protesters:
The Quebec Student strike and protests, like the popular Greek austerity protests, reveal some odd entitlements-mentality of consumers of the modern welfare state. Since the Quebec students pay the least, they feel they have the most to lose by increased fees for their education. Expressed alternatively, one becomes dependent on free or nearly free service. Accordingly, when that free service is terminated, like any dependence, there is an adverse reaction caused by withdrawal.
His remarks are but one example of the divide between the values of Quebecers and those outside the province. An education, like a passport, is considered by many to be a rightful entitlement. It is understandable that there is some fee to the user, but access to higher education should not be something that is available only to those who can afford it. It should be available and accessible to anyone who has the academic credentials to get in. Basing access to education on grades and potential, not money, helps to ensure that higher learning fosters knowledge and innovation, instead of simply being a profit center churning out degrees in exchange for money. It helps to ensure that everyone, regardless of their socioeconomic background, has the opportunity to succeed.
In the last federal election, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff proposed an education bursary based on the concept that “you get the grades, you get to go.” Although there were some issues with the math behind the proposal, the concept of merit-based access to education instead of income-based access to education is one that Quebecers believe in and have supported over the years.
Higher Tuition Rates Have Consequences
At the same time as the Bank of Canada and other authorities are warning Canadians about their levels of personal debt, the proposed Quebec tuition hike threatens to plunge more young Canadians deep into debt before they’ve even started their careers. The website QuebecTuitionFees.ca, points out some of the consequences of an increase in tuition:
- At least 7000 students will lose access to a university education, primarily those from low-income families whose parents cannot provide further financial assistance.
- Students will need to work, on average, an additional 162 hours per year to stay in school. Most students already work more than 16 hours per week, and research shows that working more than 15 hours per week as a significant negative impact on academic achievement.
For many students, the increase will simply be too much, leaving them without an education in an already tough job market.
Quebec’s Distinct Society
While student fees in Quebec are significantly lower than in the rest of Canada and the United States, they are higher than in European countries like France and Germany where university education is either free or provided at a low cost. Quebec is more progressive than other provinces in many areas, including more generous and flexible maternity and parental leave programs, and its $7 per day subsidized day care program (which more than pays for itself).
The culture in Quebec is one that supports subsidizing of programs that increase the welfare of citizens and thereby allow them to make a positive contribution to society. This is perhaps a cultural difference between Quebec and other parts of North America, but the students are far from being a group of entitled brats as some people are portraying them. They are simply putting their foot down and standing up for what is right for them and for future generations, including my children.
More protests and more arrests are expected tonight as students continue to march in protest against the proposed 75% tuition hike. There is currently no end in sight.
Photo credit: Kunal Shah on flickr