There were smiles and celebration among student groups in Quebec this past week – and with good reason – as the newly elected Parti Québécois government annulled the tuition fee hikes of $254 a year for the next seven years imposed by the outgoing Liberals before the election. Not only that, but Pauline Marois’ government also decided to keep in place the $39 million boost to Quebec’s student assistance plan that was meant to soften the effects of the increased tuition fees for low-income families.
As they say in Quebec, avoir le beurre et l’argent du beurre – it’s like having your cake and eating it too. Or, as described by Martine Desjardins, president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ, the group representing university students): “It’s a total victory!”
The students have a right to be proud of what they’ve accomplished. Throughout the months of their protests, they were generally disciplined, articulate, focussed and persuasive, attracting attention not just in Quebec, but throughout Canada and internationally. Their movement also prompted much discussion about the government’s role in education, how university education should be funded, and more.
FEUQ and its counterpart representing college students, FECQ, seem satisfied for now. The next decision for them will be whether to support the indexing of tuition to inflation, which the PQ proposes. But the more radical of the student groups, la CLASSE, is having nothing of it. They have always called for the complete elimination of tuition fees and plan to continue that fight (see here, plus this op-ed from the CLASSE leaders here).
The CLASSE position is based on the flawed premise that free postsecondary education will boost access to university. Various studies by University of Ottawa professor Ross Finnie and others have shown that tuition is not the major barrier. Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates adds that the student group’s policies would actually benefit richer families at the expense of the poor.
The most effective way to increase access to higher education, according to Western University business professor Mike Moffat, looking at OECD data, would be to give direct tuition grants to the three groups that are the least likely to attend university: children from lower-income households, rural and aboriginal Canadians and those who did not have a parent attend university. But that doesn’t have quite the same ring as “free education for all!”
Personally, I am philosophically against the notion that postsecondary education should be completely free to the user. When it comes to healthcare, another “free service,” if you’re lucky enough to have a job with workplace benefits (that pay for prescriptions and dental care, for example), there is usually a 20-percent deductible, meaning you pay 20 percent of the cost. That strikes me as fair: it’s a signal that this benefit has value and that you have a responsibility to contribute at least some amount for this benefit. This principal is similar, in effect, to the $7-a-day that Quebeckers pay for daycare (perhaps not quite 20 percent of the true cost for daycare, but close enough). According to reports, the tuition that Quebec students currently pay represents about 16 percent of the true cost.
CLASSE argues that other countries have free tuition, but this free tuition apparently isn’t always what it seems. It’s also illogical as an argument. Using the same reasoning, you could argue that we should double tuition in Canada because that would bring us in line with what Americans pay on average at their public universities.
And while it’s true that everyone in society benefits when the country has university-educated citizens, who get good jobs and pay higher taxes, no one can dispute that the individual with a university education benefits personally, too.
Finally, some students also argue that tuition should be free because education is a right. Unfortunately, there is no mention of free university tuition in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But, on the other hand, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Article 13, section 2(c), states: “Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education” (my emphasis). Canada, however, has not signed the covenant – although it did accede to the document, which can be interpreted as having the same legal effect as ratification.