The $1625 tuition hike currently facing Quebec students needs to be understood in relation to larger issues. Here you’ll find a straightforward guide that connects the specifics of the $1625 hike to some broader trends that mark the landscape of postsecondary education in Quebec.
The Quebec government is trying to enact a $1,625 raise in the annual base fee paid by all students, to be imposed in increments over five years, starting in fall 2012. That’s a 75 per cent hike for Quebec students, and the government has left open the possibility of steeper increases for out-of-province and international students.
If we allow the hike to come into effect, university education will become less accessible. Groups that already tend to have more difficulty paying for university, including women, people of color, and the poor, will be the most affected by the hike. The result is more social inequality, as postsecondary education becomes increasingly reserved for an elite class. Since available financial aid will remain inadequate, students will face surging debt burdens, which act to channel us into high-paid corporate jobs, rather than work we might find more fulfilling.
Education is a right, not a privilege. In fact, Quebec agreed to respect this principle when it signed a 1976 UN declaration holding that “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.”
Government officials and McGill Principal Heather Munroe-Blum, a vocal proponent of the tuition hike, argue that budgetary constraints leave them no option but to seek more revenue from students. In fact, funding for education is a question of government priorities. A study by research institute IRIS shows that Quebec could afford free postsecondary education for all were it to both raise its corporate capital gains tax rate from zero per cent to 2.4 per cent and its top-bracket income tax rate by 1.4 per cent.
Munroe-Blum has also promised that the tuition hike would produce tangible benefits for students. But tuition hikes in Quebec have historically been accompanied by cuts to public education funding, meaning they serve to change how education is funded, not increase funding. Tuition hikes shift the cost of education from the society which benefits from the production of knowledge to students, imagined as individual consumers.
Why are students protesting a tuition hike when their degrees would remain among the cheapest in North America? The fact that fees are higher elsewhere is not an argument for raising them here. In some parts of the world, such as Denmark, Finland, and Brazil, postsecondary education is free. If anything, the comparisons drawn with other provinces and across the border heighten the urgency of defending Quebec’s relative accessibility, as a model of a North American society that values higher education as a public good. Tuition is low here only because students, working alongside broader social movements, have fought again and again to keep it that way.
In 2005, over 200,000 students went on strike to block the Quebec government’s proposed cut of $108 million from student loans and bursaries. The strike was successful – all $108 million was restored – and financial aid for students remains a hot issue.
Funding for loans and bursaries is far from enough to ensure that all qualified students are able to attend university regardless of financial means. Quebec’s financial aid system sets an arbitrary maximum family income, leaving ineligible thousands of students whose parents earn above the limit but contribute less to tuition than the government assumes they do. In response, as part of the general strike this winter, some student associations are demanding the abolition of the ‘parental contribution’ component in financial aid calculation.
Privatization refers to an ongoing change in how universities are funded and managed. Historically accompanied by cuts to public education funding, tuition hikes are a form of privatization.
In 1988, the public sector accounted for 87% of Quebec university funding. By 2009, that figure had dropped to 65.8%, with income from individuals (tuition) rising from 5.4% to 12.2% and private-sector funding rising from 7.5% to 19.7%. This shift means that private, for-profit interests gain increasing influence in the affairs of the university.
Moreover, postsecondary education is seen increasingly as an individual investment rather than a public good, giving precedence to the economic value of a degree over the benefits of an educated population to society at large.
A form of privatization, corporatization consists of the ever-increasing influence of for-profit corporate entities in postsecondary education. Corporate funding of McGill and other universities is on the rise, with effects in all major sectors of university life, including teaching, research, and governance.
Teaching becomes increasingly oriented toward the recruitment needs of major donors.
Corporate interests increasingly dictate university research goals.
McGill has sought to foster ties with the for-profit sector by handing over significant levels of control over university governance to corporate executives. Nearly all members-at-large on McGill’s Board of Governors come from the corporate sector.