From Where I Sit - You get what you pay for

June 14, 2012

Quebec's student protests have garnered global media attention, and it's about time - the student strike began almost four months ago and the related civil disobedience has paralysed the province's higher education institutions.

After the failure of the latest negotiations between the provincial government and the protest's leaders, it is worth reminding ourselves of the issue that ignited the trouble: a proposed increase in Quebec's tuition-fee cap. The media have failed to contextualise the protests with details of what the government was proposing. Revisiting its fee plans may change some minds about the validity of the protesters' cause.

Like other Canadian universities, Quebec's accept a cap on the tuition fees they charge domestic students in exchange for operating grants from the provincial government. Quebec's 2012 budget, unveiled in February, included an increase to the cap. Under the proposal, fees would rise from C$2,519 (about £1,570) to C$3,793 over five years.

As it stands, Quebec has the lowest undergraduate tuition fees in Canada. Ontario sits at the opposite end of the spectrum, with an undergraduate fee cap of C$6,640. Even after the proposed increase, Quebec students studying in the province were to have fees C$1,500 below the national average (and most other provinces).

Unlike England's recent fee changes, the Quebec rise was not intended to replace public grants: the budget pledged to increase such grants to universities by C$850 million over the same period as the fee reform. More than 50 per cent of the new public funding was earmarked for teaching and student services. So the intention of the fee policy, coupled with higher government funding, was to improve Quebec's quality of education and student experience.

It would be easy to understand why students might be upset if they were asked to contribute more money in exchange for a substandard education, but as the maxim states: "You get what you pay for." Quebec's universities are the poorest-funded in Canada. Compared with other Canadian universities, they fare poorly in international rankings despite Quebec representing close to one-quarter of the country's population. The Quebec government conservatively estimates the funding gap between its universities and the North American average at C$600 million a year. Arguably Quebec's most famous higher education institution, Montreal's McGill University, forecasts a C$7 million and a C$3.9 million deficit respectively for the next two years, pending a resolution to the fee standoff. Higher fees and larger government grants were meant to address this chronic funding shortfall.

Proponents of artificially low tuition fees assert that they improve access to higher education. However, despite having had the lowest tuition fees in the country for some time, Quebec's educational attainment rate is mediocre. Statistics Canada reports that 48 per cent of Quebec's 25- to 65-year-olds have completed higher education credentials, including college and university awards. This compares with a Canadian provincial average of 52 per cent. In Ontario, after 12 years of some of the highest fees in the country, the average is 58 per cent. In short, Quebec's low fees have not boosted university access.

Most of the students studying in Quebec are drawn from higher socio-economic groups. This is unlikely to change unless the province (and its student leadership) takes a long, hard look at why local students from less advantaged backgrounds, recent immigrants and native populations are turning away from higher education. Focusing on the fee increase and the resulting student protests is allowing the government to ignore these larger issues.

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