Why I Don’t Support the Students in Montreal

Student ProtestsWhile it is difficult to sort through all the demands of the students protesting in Quebec (some have nothing to do with higher education), at the core they want to reduce, if not eliminate, tuition.

I can’t agree with this.

Higher education is both a private and a public good. Graduates will earn more than non-graduates; they will personally benefit in a significant way. It is only fair and reasonable that they contribute to the costs since they will reap the rewards.

And who exactly would be the beneficiary of free or low tuition? It would be those who can already afford to pay existing or even higher tuition. Quebec has robust programs to assist students in financial need; those requiring help can already get it. The student demands effectively subsidize the rich. How odd.

The research data is conclusive, while student debt is certainly a concern, financial need is not the primary barrier to enrolment in higher education.

What have the student accomplished with their protests:

The PQ, upon winning the election, froze tuition and then promptly cut grants to the universities in the middle of the fiscal year (a claw back). The result was a double hit for the universities when they were already struggling.

Yes I know there have been egregious financial failures and excesses among some universities. Heads have, and should, roll. Budgets should be balanced. Governments should help make this happen. Hold the feet of university administrators and their Boards to the fire. But at the same time, dowse some of the flames.

The PQ now want to raise tuition modestly. The financial woes for the universities will continue regardless.

As the HESA folks noted: “Congratulations to students on beating the government at checkers; too bad there’s actually a chess match going on.”

There is no question that in the rest of Canada the balance of financial responsibly for higher education has shifted from the government to the student. The result has been rising tuition and increased debt load. There has also been a rise in philanthropy as more and more of the budget shortfall is picked up through fundraising. Canada doesn’t have much of a tradition of alumni supporting their alma mater (unlike the US). Assuming we can (as we have for the most part) controlled for donors interference, this is a good thing.

The student protests and demands mask the real challenges of funding higher education in Quebec. This is a massive diversion. And the quality of higher education in Quebec will be the victim.

…Mike

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2 Responses to Why I Don’t Support the Students in Montreal

  1. John says:

    Hi Mike, I agree that the cost of tuition has to be shared to some degree, but I have a few thoughts …

    You said, “Higher education is both a private and a public good. Graduates will earn more than non-graduates; they will personally benefit in a significant way. It is only fair and reasonable that they contribute to the costs since they will reap the rewards.” Then, in turn, the Quebec public will benefit from having educated Quebec citizens. Even those who leave the province will better represent Quebec interests. It’s not easy to parcel out the benefit between public and private.

    You said, “And who exactly would be the beneficiary of free or low tuition? It would be those who can already afford to pay existing or even higher tuition.” Clearly those with low income would benefit more than those with high incomes. For people from families with low incomes, tuition is a financial and psychological obstacle. For those with high income, they would shrug off the benefit — they should be excluded.

    Quebec seems to represent the last stand for progressive social policy in Canada. An insight that seems to get missed in the rest of Canada is that as a Quebec citizen I already pay higher taxes so that education can be cheaper. If tuition is increased, will I get lower taxes? I’m not really a socialist, but I believe in paying taxes for social programs like education.

  2. Mike Ridley says:

    Thanks for the comment John.

    While it is not easy to determine relative public/private benefits, those differences are real and should be acknowledged in the funding model for higher education.

    If tuition was income contingent, as you suggest, it would certainly be more fair than free tuition. But it is free tuition many of the students are asking for. This is not progressive social policy at all in my opinion. A more sophisticated and nuanced approach by the student leaders would have helped and likely drawn more support.

    I can’t comment on your tax burden (or tax responsibility, as I tend to think of it as). However, higher education is experiencing financial crisis. Quebec has some of the most significant institutions in Canada and one or two that rank internationally. The current funding model is very very broken and it won’t get fixed with squabbles about relatively small tuition increases. Progressive social policy would invest more government dollars in grants to universities; that is where Quebec might show the lead for Canada.

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