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Quebec's low tuition has failed as a policy


Published: 29Jan2007

Quebec's low tuition has failed as a policy

Quebec's 13-year freeze on university tuition would be a fantastic achievement, if anyone could show that young people were flocking to the halls of academe and that the poor were taking advantage of an opportunity unique in Canada. But none of that is happening. Young people stay away in droves from the low-cost universities ($1,668 a year, same as in 1994), and the poor are apparently no more likely to enroll than they are in other provinces.

In short, the tuition freeze is a failure. It is not the distinct achievement of a distinct society. It is distinctively lousy public policy. There is little to show for it, except in creating a dependent culture in which affluent parents do not bother to save money for higher education, knowing the state will pick up the tab. Only 40.5 per cent of Quebec parents report saving for their children's postsecondary education, the lowest rate in Canada.

The "freeze" is an apt metaphor for a rigid, out-of-date policy. "What started out as a subsidy and grew into an article of faith is actually now undermining our commitment to quality education and degree completion," McGill University principal Heather Munroe-Blum* said in a strong speech to the Quebec National Assembly's education commission this month. Former premier Lucien Bouchard made a similar point 18 months ago, citing the tuition freeze as one example of "an excessive attachment to tradition" reminiscent of old Quebec, before the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s.

But how to budge a policy that has become wound up with Quebeckers' view of their province's uniqueness? It is hard to defeat an article of faith with rational arguments. Student leaders suggested in these pages last week that quality has not risen in other provinces as tuition rose. They speak as if inflation does not exist. Have these students tried to buy a meal, or a movie ticket, for the same price they would have paid in 1994? Yesterday's lavish lunch is today's McDonald's.

Still, no government dares to challenge the students or their parents. The problem lies in fostering a spoiled middle class. At bottom, this is not about ideology; it is about saving money to use for consumer goods. Consider that a year's tuition at McGill costs roughly the same as a 37-inch flat-screen plasma television set, now de rigueur among the affluent. Consider the thousands of dollars parents spend readily (if complainingly) on summer camps, piano lessons, hockey equipment, after-school remedial programs and vacations for their children. When middle-class parents are pouring thousands of dollars into luxuries for their children, it's nonsensical for Quebec to let them off the hook for the most valuable enrichment of all, university.

One way to prompt Quebeckers to question the faith is to point out the illusory nature of the giveaway. Quebeckers have the highest income taxes in Canada, and their province is the country's most indebted.

Raising tuition, and setting aside 30 per cent of the extra cash for bursaries for the needy, would help the poor, not hurt them. Using that approach, more expensive schools such as the University of Toronto have been able to promise that no qualified student will be turned away for lack of money. Even the best-endowed Quebec school, McGill, says it cannot afford to make that same promise. As Dr. Munroe-Blum explains, poor students need help with their living costs, too, help that Quebec schools lack the wherewithal to give.

Quebec's policy is a noble failure. The tuition freeze would melt away if ever the warm light of reason were shone on it.

*(Correct spelling is Munroe-Blum)