Thoughts On Quebec's Student Protests.

First and foremost: Loi 78 is nuts, won't survive court challenges if it comes to that, and is largely unneccessary when the bad stuff a minority of protesters are doing (smashing windows, starting fires, etc.) is already illegal and the cops can arrest people for doing that without any additional authority. However, that doesn't change the fact that the students' demands are unreasonable, driven mainly by self-interest, and worst of all, they're presented as a solution to problems that would potentially get worse if Charest gave into their demands.

The amount of debt incurred to get a bachelor's degree, even if you borrow every penny of it, is small compared to the returns it brings over the course of a person's career. This is currently true if you attend an in-province school anywhere in Canada, and even if tuition levels in Quebec rose to the same level as the rest of the country, it would still be true. Is it cause for concern that in the rest of the country, tuition growth has outpaced inflation? Absolutely, but it's still a smart investment as opposed to the states, where I'd argue that the costs have gotten high enough that a positive return isn't guaranteed. Not all degrees are created equal, of course, but over 80% of university grads earn more than the median income, and as the gap between opportunities for high school grads and university grads continues to widen, it's likely that 80% figure will continue to increase. (Source: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/education/universitynews/university-education-no-guarantee-of-earnings-success/article2179803/)

I think it's smart that the Quebec gov't has ensured that increases are only going to cover inflation since the freeze, with (I believe, correct me if I'm wrong) a commitment to tie any future increases to the inflation rate as well. Something we can learn from the rest of Canada and the States is that increasing the amount people can borrow to pay for school is one of the biggest drivers of tuition increases (much like the housing market, but that's another discussion).

Should students have their tuition covered in full by the province which will tax its workers higher to do so, with no guarantees from the students that they won't leave for provinces with lower tax rates as soon as they graduate? No. Human nature being what it is, that's a bad idea. Now, if free tuition were combined with an income-contingent repayment plan that meant you'd be bound to reimburse the province for your education, even if you left the province, there might be something there. But I haven't heard any such proposal from the students.

Would freezing tuition at current levels make university more accessible? It's doubtful. Consider that Quebec has the lowest tuition in the country by a wide margin - it would stand to reason that they'd also have the highest university participation rate in Canada, but they don't. Not only does Quebec lag Ontario, they lag the OECD average. (Source: http://www.crepuq.qc.ca/spip.php?article1021&lang=en) I'm going to go out on a limb and say that bursaries and provincial loan programs are going to be able to cover the increase when it goes through, and that those programs will be configured in such a way that anyway who wants to go and has the grades can do so. Will people who hoped to graduate debt-free have to borrow? Probably, but they'll probably get a return on that investment. Are there people who don't qualify for loans at this time due to family bullshit, and will that continue after the increase? Absolutely, but that's a reason to reform student loan standards, not to cap tuition. The goal shouldn't be to lend more money to the same group of students as it's been done in the rest of Canada and the US, but to lend the same amount of money (inflation-adjusted) to a larger number of students. That's how you improve accessibility - by removing the well documented barriers to borrowing the money needed for tuition and living expenses. But I haven't heard any such proposal from the students.

I hope you're still reading, because here's the kicker: spending more money on subsidies for university students (which happens every year the tuition freeze continues) leaves less to fund the social safety net, and that problem, far more than the price tag of a degree, is what keeps young people from pursuing a university education. By the time I was halfway through 10th grade, I could've predicted with about 90% accuracy who in my high school class would go to University, who would go to College, and who would pursue neither after graduation... mostly based on their socioeconomic status. And given demonstrable trends in the demographics of university students, my experience likely wasn't unique. (Source: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/11f0019m/11f0019m2003210-eng.pdf) My point is this: if ensuring that every Quebec student has the ability and means to get a university degree is the goal, holding tuition to $2k a year instead of $4k a year for everybody will pay far smaller dividends than putting those funds towards programs that address child poverty rates and improve elementary/secondary education, because most of the people who don't go to university have that fate sealed for them long before the question of tuition even comes up. But I haven't heard any such proposal from the students.

To the extent that they're facing a significant rise in their annual expenses, I completely understand why the students feel compelled to march in the streets. Hell, if the government capitulated after 20 hours of marching, that's a very nice hourly return on your time spent. But if you're wondering why people disagree with your protests, it's because you're asking current taxpayers to pay your way without any commitment on your part to pay them back. You're claiming that these changes will make education inaccessible when it's questionable that that's the case: keeping loan difficulties equal, increased bursaries will help those with legitimate financial barriers more than before. And you're suggesting that the best thing government can do to make education accessible is to keep tuition low at the expense of other solutions that address the socioeconomic reasons why 70% of Quebecois youth aren't going to University.


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1 comment

  • Great post, Brian. I agree with you in the basic sense, but I believe
    you may have glossed over a few points where nuance is required. Many
    interesting discussions are happening, and I do not believe that we
    should make the mistake of assuming that Eric Martin or CLASSE speak for
    everyone marching in the streets. I’ve been reading tweets and blog
    posts and interviews, and the conversations are nothing if not diverse.

    Firstly, many students have stated that they are open to discussing
    income contingent repayment (commonly referred to as RPR: remboursement
    proportionel au revenu), though it is true that CLASSE is opposed to the
    idea.

    The main point of contention is really a philosophical one,
    coming down to the purpose of a university education rather than a
    pragmatic question of accessibility. Is a university degree an
    investment by an individual for their own benefit, or an investment by a
    society for the benefit of all? (Both, I say.) This is one of the chief
    sticking points in the debate. Postgraduate taxation (impot
    post-universitaire/IPU) and RPR plans strengthen the links between labor
    market and education sector, which I would see as a good thing, but
    then again they do so at the expense of fields such as fine arts, music,
    and the humanities. And that is not so good.

    (And that could get us into the debate of the value of the arts, and whether “value” can be measured in purely economic terms.)

    CLASSE
    is against RPR based largely on the fact that in England, a similar
    plan resulted in huge increases in tuition fees… similar to the effect
    you mentioned about allowing increased borrowing driving up the cost of
    school. Personally, I think that RPR is a reasonable plan to discuss. I
    am against the IPU, though.

    The fact of the matter is that while opposition to tuition fee hikes
    is the overarching theme of the protests, we would be remiss to
    disregard the other elements. It is not the tuition increase alone that
    students object to, but the tuition increase coupled with what they see
    as unsatisfactory policies aimed at lessening the resulting negative
    effects.

    You said that “The goal shouldn’t be to lend more money to the same
    group of students…but to lend the same amount of money
    (inflation-adjusted) to a larger number of students. […] But I haven’t
    heard any such proposal from the students.”

    In fact, this is one of the
    students’ chief concerns. In order to lessen the negative effects of
    the tuition hikes, the
    government has said that it will reinvest 35% of the sum obtained by
    increasing tuition fees to financial aid. However, the stated improvements to
    the loans and bursaries program do not significantly broaden the
    eligibility criteria. Also, the biggest change would be to increase the
    amounts loaned to students already eligible for the maximum. This will
    simply allow for the same students to incur greater debt. You pointed out that greater
    quantities of debt encourages increases in tuition, and it is precisely
    for this reason the students are so alarmed at a mitigation plan so
    focused on more debt for the most vulnerable.

    You’re absolutely right in that we should give money to more students rather than
    more money to the same students… and many student groups (even the
    radical CLASSE) agree with you there. Unless financial aid eligibility
    criteria are also adjusted, an increase in tuition will hit low and
    middle-income students the hardest. These are the folks whose access
    will be most affected: neither the richest nor the poorest, but those in
    the middle.

    You pointed out that the income gap between university educated and
    high school-educated workers has increased, but I would add that this
    does not mean that the value of a degree (in terms of return on
    investment) has kept pace with the cost, especially elsewhere in Canada.
    It has not. My position is that tuition costs should be more regulated,
    and tied to inflation if possible.

    You also raised the issue of the social safety net, and the impact
    that youth poverty has on future academic possibilities. One of the
    reasons the April 14th demonstration was so popular with both students
    and non-students is that this was one of the chief issues of focus,
    rather than simply tuition. The newsletters and blog posts published in
    advance of the 14th called for people to come out against “Cuts in
    social programs, taxcuts for corporations, record-shattering
    military expenditures, rollbacks on women’s rights, mass-firings,
    inaction in the face of factory closings, increasing the retirement age
    to 67, increases in tuition fees, the imposition of the « health tax »,
    increase in Hydro Quebec rates” (source: stopthehike.ca). Many groups
    also gathered for the specific purpose of discussing the new federal
    budget.

    In any case, I am not a wholehearted supporter of the strike. Many are
    advocating for free university, but as long as education is a provincial
    matter, I don’t see it as being possible. But neither am I comfortable
    with the willingness of many Canadians to assume that CLASSE represents
    the opinions of all protesters, and the dismissal of the nuance many
    students, workers, and professors have taken the time to put into their
    arguments. We have more in common than we realize. 

    • Chelsea Edgell