The Forgotten Issues of Quebec’s Student Strike

Higher education

The ongoing three-month strike by Quebec university students over tuition increases has sparked near-unanimous outrage from members of Canada’s mainstream commentariat — and not just over the violence, but over the very content of what students are demanding.

What do these spoiled rich kids have to protest against, the pundits wail, when already they pay the lowest tuition in Canada, and Canadian tuition in general is but a fraction of that in the United States? They are unrealistic. They feel entitled. In Andrew Coyne’s words: “The student leaders, at this point, are absolutely delusional in their sense of their importance to the universe.”

What is rarely included in this chorus of condemnation is an honest look at higher education elsewhere in the world. Dozens of countries offer free post-secondary education — not just in wealthy Northern Europe, but also in Cuba, Sri Lanka, and Botswana. In some cases, they share these benefits with international students as well as citizens, and even offer cost-of-living allowances. There is nothing in the Canadian experience that would make it impossible for us to gradually implement such practices. It is simply a matter of using tax dollars to spread the costs around — something we already do with K-12 education.

Some object that students are the ones who primarily benefit from their education, and therefore they should be the ones to pay. But this argument fails to acknowledge that society as a whole gains from a highly educated population.

However, if people decide that students should be made to sacrifice something for the benefit of a higher education, perhaps conditions could be placed on free tuition. For instance, graduates could have their student debts wiped clean in return for working a certain number of years in whatever jurisdiction offers them the deal. The number of years required could even be reduced if the student agrees to spend them working somewhere deemed especially important — such as remote rural communities or perhaps the developing world.

Another common objection to free tuition is that it is highly regressive. Most university students come from middle- and upper-class backgrounds, this argument runs. To divert society’s resources for their benefit, by reducing or eliminating tuition fees, only increases the problem of inequality.

In a way this is true, but we must realize that it becomes less true as the cost of education drops. Tuition fees are a barrier to higher education — especially for those with low incomes. They may not be the only barrier, or even the most important. Some evidence shows that parental influence and early formative experiences play a larger role in determining whether or not an individual will attend university. But while tuition fees may not be the whole problem, they are certainly a substantial part of it. Any comprehensive program to make post-secondary education more accessible for everyone — regardless of one’s finances — ought to include the phasing out of tuition fees.

Equality of opportunity is what it all comes down to. In the current war of words over the Quebec student strike — over the behaviour of that “self-serving, self-satisfied, self-dramatizing collection of idiots” (quoting the inexhaustible Andrew Coyne once again) — I hope that this basic principle does not get buried.

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10 thoughts on “The Forgotten Issues of Quebec’s Student Strike

  1. Hi, SoW,

    I do appreciate your suggestions about trying to make university accessible for all students. There are advantages and disadvantages in countries that have free university tuition. The advantage is that university is free for students. The disadvantage is that the state does limit who gets to attend university sometimes.

    Students who strive for a good education and succeed in their courses should get their tuition paid by the state. For example, all students would enter first year university tuition-free. After, there could be a graduated means “score” where students who achieve a minimum of 70% in a course will get a full subsidy on their tuition. Students who get 50% (or minimum pass) to 69% could get a gradual subsidy for the second year. The “score” could be re-calculated after each year. One may disagree with my numbers. These can be adjusted.

    I will agree with The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente (cough, cough) that we should examine the types of courses taught at our univerisities. She may want to get rid of Women’s Studies. I won’t suggest that. I do suggest that we model our Bachelor of Arts programs after the secondary school International Baccalaureate programs. Universities could require BA students to take courses in different fields of studies. For example, a student taking Women’s Studies courses would also be required to take at least one Math/Science course, one language, and one business related course. That way, that liberal arts student could have a well rounded education, and he/she should be able to market him/herself to society. It doesn’t mean just trying to get a job. It could mean working/volunteering with others. It could mean pursuing a Master’s degree.

    • Definitely an interesting idea. Personally, my preference would be to pay fully through taxation for the education of every last person who wants it, but I realize that that level of change won’t happen overnight. Undoubtedly, your suggestion is infinitely better than what we have right now.

      In fact, the system you recommend might be a good intermediate step along the way to free tuition. It could start, for instance, with a general scholarship provided by the federal or provincial government to all students who meet a certain minimum standard. Over time, this minimum would gradually be lowered — with government providing the funding to make up the shortfall in tuition fees — until everyone is fully subsidized.

  2. Pingback: Sociology? What a Waste of an Education! | merlinspielen

  3. Hey there! An excellent post. Thanks for the Pingback to my blog post. I touch on some of this in my own ramble inspired by the Quebec Student Protest – and I also look at the question of what is the value of an education? Who benefits from having an educated population? Is it the individual? Or is there a greater benefit to all of us if people are educated and taught to reason?

    • Glad you liked my post.

      It is pretty much undeniable that both the individual and society benefit from higher education. For that reason, and for the sake of equality of opportunity, I favour spreading the costs of all education (from daycare to post-secondary) around as widely as possible.

  4. Interesting analysis on the Quebec student movement. I have tried to disect what is happening in Quebec as a service provision matter, but having been educated free of tuition in Sweden, I agree with your views on the benefits of tax-supported university education.

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