The claims for free public education have intersected with numerous other social struggles in Quebec, which we also choose to address in our work.
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Youtube Description: A video with 2 reserachers from IRIS (Intitute of Socio-Economic Research and Information), Simon Tremblay-Pépin and Éric Martin, who dispel several myths that are advanced to justify tuition increases.
Tuition Fees: Myth #1
Universities Are Underfinanced
One of the arguments we often hear from people who support raising tuition fees is to tell us universities are underfinanced – that they lack resources.
But, universities have never received more money than they do today. The problem has more to do with what they do with that money, and how they divide it up. That’s what people are calling into question.
Underfinanced or Poorly Financed?
We get the impression that universities are underfinanced when we look at the numbers of students per class or the state of their libraries, and it’s true that there are problems there.
The problem isn’t the quantity of money; it’s in the way that the money is allocated.
There isn’t one single university; there are two. There’s the Teaching University that is getting poorer, and the Research University that is increasingly better funded.
Total research revenues in Quebec
When people talk about “research,” they’re not talking about fundamental research – the kind of research that develops into big discoveries over the long-term.
It’s more research with a commercial goal that aims to develop innovations that have positive, short-term economic benefits – that make money quickly. These research universities are well financed.
Total spending per student
Quebec is the province that spends the most per student on teaching and research.
The amount spent on research grants has doubled in ten years, by the way, passing the $1 billion mark.
These sums come with restrictions, however. They are dedicated to specific research and cannot be used to finance the regular operations of the institution.
Furthermore, that money is distributed very unequally. Research deemed to be “profitable” is favoured, to the detriment of other research judged to be “unprofitable.”
Distribution of research grants, by discipline
(Social Sciences - Health, pure and applied sciences - Other)
For example, in 2008 the health sciences, pure science and applied science alone benefited from 75% of all research grants. The social sciences received a tiny 7.8%.
So, instead of talking about “underfinancing” we would do better to talk about “poor financing.”
The universities tell us they’re going to raise tuitions to syphon $265 million from the students. But over here, there is already a billion dollars in research funds on the universities’ books.
So, it seems to me that we don’t have a problem with financial resources, but a problem with our sense of priorities.
Tuition Fees: Myth #2
Tuition Hikes Protect the Value of a Diploma
It is often said that if tuition rates don’t climb rapidly the value of a diploma will deflate. This implies that the value of a diploma depends upon its market value.
For example, McGill raised the cost of its MBA to $30,000 per year. From one day to the next, you have more or less the same program in terms of content, but now its worth more because yesterday they hiked the price.
It’s clear to see that this makes no sense.
In England, there are mediocre colleges that did this: they hiked their prices to give the impression that they had become colleges of a better quality.
And, it worked. Many people took the bait, because they think that when the price of something goes up, it must be of a higher quality – in this case, that the quality of education offered had also improved.
In reality, increased tuition fees mean that people are going to increasingly chose shorter diploma programs, so they take on less debt and find a job quickly.
What gets lost in the process is a solid general education, in favour of ultra-specialized training.
Increasingly Specialized* Training
When people talk about “specialized diplomas,” they’re talking about programs that are very short, where graduates will have to return to school frequently to recycle and adapt their knowledge to the needs of an evolving job market.
That’s why continuing education has become so important today.
Under this argument, we’re asked to measure the value of a diploma not by its price but by its capacity to transmit a package of knowledge, to improve understanding, etc.
You’ll notice this runs counter to the earlier arguments offered to support tuition increases.
If diplomas are currently losing value in terms of their content, it is precisely because we’ve given universities an economic development role with a “just in time” ethos that rapidly reaches its expiry date as the market evolves.
More Market Value, Less Academic Value
By over-evaluating a diploma’s economic value, we are decreasing its actual value, in terms of content.
Counterintuitively, the more we want a diploma to be worth more on the job market, the more we undercut its real academic and intellectual worth.
Tuition Fees: Myth #3
The Hike is Necessary to Rescue Universities
People often tell us that if we raise tuition rates, university coffers will swell and the universities will be rescued, financially.
But, when we look at the numbers, investment by the government has consistently decreased from year to year, while investment by the student body continues to grow.
That means that, by percentage, the government is not maintaining its share of university financing.
Source of University Funding
(Public – Students – Private)
The objective of tuition hikes, therefore, is to shift an increasing share of the burden of university funding on to individuals.
Through this process of substitution, universities’ culture of public service will be progressively replaced by the logic of “client-ism.”
Under this logic, the university is increasingly a place where an individual invests in his/her personal human capital… “Me Inc.” as if each individual is a micro-business, his/her own personal incorporated enterprise.
Far from refinancing universities, in reality tuition fee hikes contribute to individualization and privatization of university funding.
A Strictly Personal Investment
It’s completely reasonable that after all this people would expect more for their money, that they would expect high-paying jobs and demand programs that show good returns.
So, the more we hike tuition rates, the more universities are under increasing pressure to plug directly into economic development needs.
This means that they have to drastically modify the content of their courses, and de-emphasize the social function that they play in society.
So, far from being the economic salvation of universities, tuition hikes result in universities that are increasingly swallowed up by the pressures of the overall economy, and more and more subject to objectives of immediate productivity, which leads to distortion.
Tuition Fees: Myth #4
The Hike Will Pay for Professors
It is often said that if we increase tuition, universities will be able to increase the number of professors, or to offer better material for students.
But in the new university with its economic development vocation, we perceive that a large portion of funds is monopolized by the ever-growing cost of management personnel and other bureaucratic expenses.
Distribution of employees at Université de Montréal
(Executives – Professors – Other)
For example, at the Université de Montréal administrative personnel (i.e. the senior executives and professional staff) increased considerably between 2000 and 2008.
Meanwhile, the proportion of professors decreased.
So, obviously education is not the goal here.
Furthermore, we know that universities are hiring more and more sessional instructors on limited-term contracts to avoid the payroll impact of hiring them as salaried professors.
And, we haven’t even considered the fact that the “new university” of the “knowledge economy” expends incredible resources on marketing to attract clients, and steal them away from other universities in an environment of highly elevated competition.
They also spend a great deal on lawyers, legal fees for all the briefs they produce, and other legal expenses.
The more we invest in the commercialized “new university” the more these problems will be accentuated… the more the contradictions – between an increasingly precarious teaching vocation and an increasingly over-financed commercial research vocation – will become radicalized.
What is the Role of Universities?
The whole problem comes from this confrontation between two visions, two functions for the university, and the fact that one of these functions is in the process of supplanting the other.
So long as this debate is not resolved, the more money we’re going to invest, and the more this money will be spent on concrete, management, advertising, and legal costs, rather than funding access to education.
So, once again, we have a problem of priorities, what is the purpose of a university?
To educate? Or to outsource corporate research and development?
Tuition fees: Myth #5
Financial aid will offset increased costs
It is argued that student financial aid will ensure that everyone can go to university anyway. However, that aid will only affect about 20% of students. For the other 80% it means pay more or go further into debt.
And it’s not only students who will have to take on more debt. It’s also their parents.
Household debt in Canada & Quebec
But, household debt currently stands at historic 40-year high.
Is it really a good time to be asking people, especially our youth, to go further into debt?
The message we’re sending to students is to to pay for their education by working more during their studies, even though all research on the subject suggests that this has adverse effects.
In England, for example, the 2005 tuition hikes meant students had to augment their work hours by 54%.
University enrollment in Great Britain
When those increases were brought in, the British government also instated a loans & bursaries program, hailed by the OECD as one of the most generous in the world. But, it didn’t prevent a severe drop in university enrollment following the hike, from 37% down to 17%.
In the end, hiking tuition fees, what does that mean?
It means more students who work during their studies, higher debts, and fewer students in university classrooms.
Tuition Fees: Myth #6
Students have to pay their fair share
People say that students have to do their fair share and pay more of the cost of their education.
First, let’s admit that a “fair share” is a pretty vague concept. At what point does a share become fair? And, who decides whether a share is fair or not fair?
Our Finance Minister Raymond Bachand has set the fair share, arbitrarily, at the share of education costs he paid in 1968.
Is that really fair? In 1968, the Quebec university system was very different from what it is today. It was miniscule and reserved to a well-to-do elite.
Number of weeks at minimum wage to pay cost of tuition.
If we compare ourselves instead to 1978, when we built the Université du Quebec network, and we look not only at tuition but also the work hours at minimum wage required to pay for tuition, we see that students will have to work twice as long after these hikes than they did in 1978.
Is that what it means to pay their fair share? To expect students to work for 9 weeks to pay their tuition?
Furthermore, it is difficult to say who pays a fair share of tuition costs because tuition is the same for everybody, no matter what their income is or how much money they’ll make after finishing their studies.
We could however use a different system which is much more fair, which is based on each individual’s capacity to pay. It’s called income tax.
Effective tax rate by income
Thanks to income taxes, the wealthier we are, the more we pay. So, contrary to what Minister Bachand says, we already have a system where everyone pays a fair share at the moment when he/she has the money to pay it.
By lowering taxes as it has done, and by increasing tuition as it plans to do, the government is making the less well-to-do contribute too much, while the more well-to-do continue to come out ahead.
Tuition fees: Myth #7
The Hike Will Not Affect Enrollment
We’re told that increasing tuition will have no affect on university enrollment. If this is true, we could increase tuition fees as much as we like, and there would always be the same number of people going to university.
There are many numbers circulating that deal with this question, which is confusing.
It’s time to set the record straight.
Typically, those who defend tuition increases talk about enrollment rates across Canada, they say, “Yes, the enrollment rates are a bit higher in Quebec. But Nova Scotia, where tuition rates are very high, has even higher enrollment than Quebec. Therefore, there is no link between tuition and enrollment.”
Well, comparing the enrollment rates across the Canadian provinces is comparing apples and oranges.
Not only is much of the training done at the university level in other provinces done at CEGEPs in Quebec, in Quebec bachelors degrees have a shorter duration than in other provinces. This completely biases all data in favour of the other provinces. Even still, our rate is higher than the Canadian average.
It’s more accurate to look at enrollment in all post-secondary programs, adding in CEGEPs and colleges.
University and post-secondary enrollment in Canada
(Can. – NS – QC – ON – BC)
Here, we can clearly see the success of Quebec’s education policies. Our enrollment rate is 9 points higher than the Canadian average. We’re higher than all the other provinces.
That’s not all. We also have historical proof of the adverse effects of tuition increases on enrollment rates.
Rate of access to first university cycle in Quebec
In the early nineties, the Quebec government increased tuition rates radically. What happened to enrollment? It automatically dropped, and it took us ten years to recover.
In short, by looking at our past experience or by comparing ourselves to other Canadian provinces, we know that the tuition increase will have an impact on university enrollment.
Tuition fees: Myth #8
Frozen or Free Tuition Is Unrealistic
We’re told that freezing tuition rates is impossible, and that free tuition is a delusional utopia.
But, we know that the tuition freeze has contributed to maintaining better accessibility in Quebec than in all the rest of Canada. Furthermore, a tuition freeze is not costly. As a matter of fact, it costs precisely nothing. It’s quite simply maintaining the status quo.
On the other hand, free tuition – which would make it so anyone in Quebec could go to university without a single thought for the thickness of his/her wallet – well, to achieve free tuition would cost $700 million a year.
That may sound like a lot, $700 million. But, is it really so costly for the Quebec state?
Examples of Recent Governmental Measures
(Measures – Party in Power – Cost)
(Indexation of Tax Brackets – Reduction of Tax Rates – Tax Reduction – Progressive elimination of Capital Tax)
(PQ = Parti Québécois, PLQ = Liberals)
In reality, when we look at measures adopted by the various parties that held government over the past ten years, we see that it’s not rare for the state to deprive itself of revenues or increase spending by sums considerably larger than $700 million.
Furthermore, we can look to several countries – with some of the world’s most prized education systems – that have put free tuition in place. As a result, they have gained considerable benefits, both social and economic.
On the other hand, states that have opted for high tuition fees have the worlds most unequal education systems. In those countries, it is most often children of wealthy parents who have access to higher learning.
Family income of medical students in Ontario.
(Before the increase – After the increase)
(Annual family income above $80K – Annual family income less than $80K)
In this respect, Ontario conducted a rather painful experiment. They hiked tuition rates for medical studies, and saw a large reduction in the rate of medical students from homes that earn less than $80,000.
Obviously, that decrease was offset by an equivalent increase from wealthier households.
In short, frozen or free tuition are far from being unrealistic utopian ideas. The public finances of Quebec would permit putting them in place. In fact, they are the only measures that would allow us to avoid an unequal, two-tiered education system.
[END OF FIRST VIDEO)
Education: What is it for?
Often, the tuition hike is presented as inevitable. We’re told that we have to quickly adapt to the knowledge economy.
But the first question you have to ask yourself when you hear that is, what is this new vision of education as some sort of market? We used to think of it as a public service. We had a different vision of the role a university plays.
Traditionally, the role of a university was to transmit our cultural heritage, both sciences and humanities – to train autonomous individuals capable of judgment, critical thinking, reflection.
Now we’re told that this is no longer a university’s primary role. Its role is to stimulate economic development. People need to think of it as an investment in their human capital, as if it were merchandise.
We have passed from a system of distribution – one where knowledge is considered a common good transmitted from one generation to the next, financed by a mechanism that redistributes wealth – to another system. One we could describe as capitalization.
Education has become little more than an investment, a privatization, a bet on me.
This will supposedly produce innovations that allow our corporations to be tough and competitive in a stagnant market and permit individuals to find their niche in the job market. If there were a debate between these two fundamental visions of education, tuition increases are little more than a symptom.
If you accept that a university is first and foremost a commercial venue, then you’re accepting to pay the ultimate price to play for your life on the academic market.
Otherwise, if you agree that university is a public service that aims to develop reasoning and transmit knowledge, you cannot subscribe to the idea of tuition hikes.
On the contrary, a truly accessible university service assumes that tuition costs be reduced– what’s more, that they should be abolished… which brings us to free tuition.
University as a Public Service = Free Tuition
Commercial University = Tuition Increases
It’s not a decision to be taken lightly. This is more than an accounting choice. At its core, this is question of what type of society we went to live in.
Do we want to live in a society of entrepreneurs who are here to manage risks and catastrophes, and somehow make money along the way?
Or, do we want to live in a society that trains individuals capable of independence, of reflexivity, and up to the challenging of tackling the considerable social problems that lie ahead, and the terrible environmental crises that confront us today.
Translated from the original French by Translating the printemps érable.
*Translating the printemps érable is a volunteer collective attempting to balance the English media’s extremely poor coverage of the student conflict in Québec by translating media that has been published in French into English. These are amateur translations; we have done our best to translate these pieces fairly and coherently, but the final texts may still leave something to be desired. If you find any important errors in any of these texts, we would be very grateful if you would share them with us at email@example.com. Please read and distribute these texts in the spirit in which they were intended; that of solidarity and the sharing of information.