The High Cost of Low Tuition in Quebec

Read Daniel Weinstock’s take on this issue.

At this writing, the student unions’ boycott of classes in Quebec has ended in success. The boycott precipitated an early election that brought down Jean Charest’s PLQ government. His defense of higher tuition and his stand against the student unions—excessive and illiberal though it became— almost certainly helped him in the polls; the boycott was never popular among voters. Perhaps it even saved his party from the third-place finish and subsequent death spiral that seemed likely at one stage. Nonetheless, it prompted the early election, and thus the Parti Québecois’ rise to power as much as a year earlier than would otherwise have occurred. The PQ has cancelled the planned tuition increases, and classes have resumed.

No educator can be unhappy that the events of the last six months have drawn to a close, however temporary. A semester was nearly lost; students in the street were subjected to police violence, students attempting to attend class were subjected to coercion from other students, and the attempt to prevent the latter brought armed police onto campuses. But one can be happy that it is over and still be discontent with the outcome. And so I am. The student boycott was a destructive tactic put in the service of a goal that will do continuing harm to Quebec higher education.

First, the tactic.

In Canada, as in most liberal democracies, labour unions have the legal authority to call strikes. In Quebec, they have the special privilege of preventing dissenters or nonunion members from filling the vacant jobs (Editor’s Note: Ontario does not have anti-scab legislation). This privilege helps make collective bargaining possible and meaningful. This, it is generally thought, justifies the exception from the normal rule in a liberal society that private actors cannot coerce dissenters or non-members, and cannot interfere in exchanges and agreements between other parties. But the privilege is granted carefully and jealously, with legal regulation of the decision-making procedures that lead to a strike, as well as of the picketing and protesting activity that can accompany it. Quebec student unions, although creations of the provincial government with legal privileges of their own—crucially, the ability to set and require payment of dues from students enrolled at the universities and CEGE Ps—do not have the legal privilege of calling strikes. Students as free persons have the right to assemble and protest, and to do so en masse. But the unions have no recognized privilege to call strikes—clearly deliberately so, since the legislation governing their activities is identical in many other respects to the legislation governing labour unions. Advocates of the boycotts responded to this by pointing out that strikes are also not prohibited, and that in a free society the presumption is on the side of permissibility, not prohibition. This is all true. But the privileges of striking—crucially, the privilege of coercing dissenters and nonmembers—cannot be inferred from the mere absence of prohibition.

The boycotters helped themselves to the privileges accorded to labour unions and claimed the right to be able to create a “strike” binding on dissenting students (not to mention instructors) while upholding none of the responsibilities of labour unions: publicly authorized quorum rules and voting procedures agreed upon in advance, limitations on the time and place of picketing, and so on. This was the source of the ugliest confrontations on campuses. Many universities and CEGEPs sought to remain open for students who wished to attend class, and ultimately called on police to enforce court injunctions against their classrooms being blocked by protesters. I think that most of us associated with universities recoiled from the image of riot police on campus. But where such police activity was not present— notably at the Université de Québec à Montréal—we witnessed something from which we should also recoil: professors who wanted to teach and students who wanted to learn being prevented from doing so by aggressive masked protesters who blocked classrooms or disrupted classes, loudly storming into classes in progress, turning off the lights or creating noise that made the classes impossible to continue. This left the universities and colleges affected by the boycott with no tolerable choices; they were cornered by the boycotters’ claim that they could legitimately decide to shut classes down.

There was other scattered violence during the protests (more on the side of the police than on the side of the protesters, it must be said) as well as a handful of serious and dangerous acts of vandalism and disruption, most conspicuously, the smoke-bombing of the Montreal subway system. But vandalism, throwing rocks, and even terrorizing subway passengers were marginal activities. I don’t think the same can be said of the attacks on classes, which were conceptually linked to the binding strike claim.

Most boycotters and protesters—“most” by far, since 150,000 students were on boycott and more than that took part in protests— took no part in such tactics. But, in order to forestall divide-and-conquer tactics on the government’s part, the three student organizations tied their positions together early in the campaign. This prevented the two lessradical organizations (FEUQ and FECQ) from putting any meaningful distance between themselves and CLASSE, whether in protest tactics or in moving into negotiations. Effectively, the group that was most committed to taking coercive action against classes was allowed to set the position for the whole movement. Smoke-bombing was no one’s endorsed strategy, but attacks on educational environments were explicitly endorsed.

I know that some of my colleagues share these sentiments about some of the boycotters’ means, but believe that the ends were just, and that the preservation of ultra-low tuition stands as a real accomplishment. I cannot agree with them. After tuition freezes lasting from 1968-1990 and 1994-2007, Quebec’s universities are severely underfunded, while Quebec is already at or near the top in North America in both its tax and debt burden. In the meantime, both public and private universities throughout North America have regularly increased tuition above the general rate of consumer inflation; like health care, higher education is a labour-intensive industry that tends to become disproportionately more expensive as productivity increases elsewhere in the economy. I see no long-term alternatives besides tuition increases or a serious decline in the excellence of Quebec’s universities. The fantasies peddled by some student groups that zero tuition could be easily attained with minor tax increases (above and beyond those the PQ already has planned) assume away the possibility of capital flight or tax-induced emigration.

A policy of keeping tuition far below the cost of an education can be understood in two different ways: as a transfer from those who do not attend university to those who do, or as a kind of collective loan to students from their future taxpaying selves. The first sounds regressive and unfair (especially when one thinks about ultra-low tuition for professional degrees such as law, business, medicine, and dentistry); the latter, progressive and fair. Both capture some truth and both are incomplete. The first perspective does not fully take into account that the tax system is progressive and that university graduates systematically out-earn those who do not attend. This means that the university graduates, while they received a benefit that others did not, are also likely to pay into the system at higher rates than others over their lifetimes. The second perspective misses the possibility of migration in and out of the system; students who take their cheap educations and leave will escape that repayment, while in-migrants or those who receive their educations elsewhere seemingly overpay.

Quebec of course does not face massive emigration, though it does face some. A large majority of Quebec’s people are francophones who naturally want to remain in a francophone society. This helps keep the beneficiaries of the tuition subsidies paying into the system throughout their lifetimes. As things stand now, such emigration is probably concentrated among anglophones and allophones, and perhaps those most concerned about the preservation of “the French fact” don’t mind seeing some of them leave for more lucrative pastures. (Although it should be noted that, in the last election, the Coalition pour l’Avenir du Québec (CAQ), noticed the problem of emigration among those who received cheap in-province medical degrees, and proposed exit taxes that would recoup the cost of their education after the fact; I suspect this is a harbinger of things to come as long as tuition remains very low.)

This is not the only connection between limited mobility and low tuition. The preservation of “the French fact” depends on the ability to keep young and professional francophones at home in Quebec. The moment of university enrollment might be a decisive one: if all of the smartest young francophones left for the rest of Canada or the US for their university degrees, too few might return to ensure Quebec’s economic and demographic survival. The combination of a two-year CEGEP system followed by three-year undergraduate degrees with extremely low tuition for in-province students operates powerfully to keep them at home. The difference between a three-year degree at $2500 per year and a four-year degree at anything from twice to ten times that level at public universities elsewhere in North America (to say nothing of American private universities) is obvious.

This adds up to a certain kind of stabilizing social function being served by Quebec’s ultra-low tuition. But it comes at a serious cost. To the degree that the system keeps students at home by sheer cheapness, it is not a priority to retain them through teaching and research excellence. Indeed, the social-reproduction function is at some odds with an emphasis on such excellence. Internationally competitive training would increase the risk that mobility will happen after graduation, as students take their subsidized degrees to Toronto, New York, or Paris.

But ultimately, the quality of education does matter, and if it is wrong to think of higher education as purely a private investment in marketable job skills, it is also wrong to think of it only as a means of training people to stay where they are in an insulated and isolated society. Quebec is no longer that kind of society, and can only become less so over time. The need for a higher education system committed to excellence and able to compete nationally and internationally will only increase. This not only calls for funding increases of at least the level imagined by the defeated Liberal government; it is incompatible with the stable closed system of low tuition, low mobility, and high taxes over the long term.

All of this is in addition to the familiar point that was made during the spring and summer debates under the label “fair share.” A society does benefit tremendously from a highly educated population, but a lot of that benefit is concentrated in the hands of those who themselves received the education. There is no easy way to parcel out the components, but a basic sense of that division lies behind the common policy of funding public universities partly out of the public purse and partly by tuition. Not only is Quebec an outlier in North America in how little it charges students now, the student movement demands that it become steadily more so, whether by a freeze at current nominal tuition levels or by a reduction toward zero.

Against all of these considerations is set the idea of accessibility. But the proposed tuition increases were well-structured toward maintaining accessibility, with a considerable share of funding earmarked for financial aid. Ultra-low tuition has no demonstrated tendency to increase university enrollments; defenders of low tuition point to high attendance at Quebec’s free CEGEPs, but subsequent university attendance lags behind the rest of the country. On the surface, Quebec does not offer any resounding university access success commensurate with its extreme outlier status on tuition. Those concerned about university education of course must be concerned about access to it, but the conviction that low tuition is here superior to average tuition plus bursaries seems like nothing but ideological dogma.

Jacob T. Levy is the Tomlinson Professor of Political Theory, Associate Professor of Political Science and Associate Member of the Department of Philosophy at McGill University.

3 Responses to “The High Cost of Low Tuition in Quebec”

  •  by Ileana

    Have you read the recent articles concerning the links between deans and construction fraud?


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