It's said that any publicity is good publicity, but in 2012, Quebec grabbed international headlines for all the wrong reasons when the Liberal government's plan to raise tuition $325 a year for five years (after which it would remain the lowest in Canada) led student groups to enforce a boycott of university and college classes. The movement later began nightly marches whose sights and sounds became familiar to all Montrealers: the buzz of a police helicopter, the clanging of pots and pans and, inevitably, broken glass, sirens, and violent clashes. The dispute eventually became the longest such confrontation in the province's history and contributed heavily to then-Premier Jean Charest's defeat at the hands of the Parti Québécois in September.
Upon taking office, the new government immediately cancelled the tuition increase. Incoming Premier Pauline Marois had been a staunch supporter of the students, donning the movement's trademark red square and taking to the streets with her very own kitchenware. To the students' disappointment, however, her government soon introduced a tuition hike of its own by indexing fees, which would cause them to rise by about $70 a year. While the students professed shock and disappointment, it was clear that Marois' support for them was political opportunism at its most shameless: as education minister in 1996, she had sought to introduce a 30% tuition hike only to retreat in the face of protests.
What About the Money?
Mostly forgotten in the student dispute was the bigger problem that higher tuition was intended to address: the chronic underfunding of Quebec universities. A 2010 report from their provincial association estimated that the universities were short $850 million compared to their counterparts across Canada. Indeed, Marois herself had acknowledged the problem back in 2005.
In 2012, however, her government exacerbated this situation in several ways. First, the universities had prepared their 2012-2013 budgets expecting the tuition hike, first announced in 2011. Its reversal caused McGill, for example, to lose $6 million in anticipated revenues. Worse, in December, the government informed universities that they would lose $120 million in funding―for the current year that was already two-thirds over. In other words, they lost funds that they were not only expecting, but that they were already committed to spending. For McGill, this amounted to another $19 million (over 5% of total revenues). Worse still, the government announced further cuts in 2013-2014, for a total of about $250 million. The province later agreed to provide guaranteed funding starting in 2014-2015 while spreading out the cuts, which would still cause tremendous short-term dislocation.
Beyond the simple math of the budget figures, there was a more sinister tone to some of the political discourse surrounding the issue. Journalist Michel David complained that English-language schools had 25% of the province's university students and received 30% of the funding whereas anglophones make up barely 8% of Quebec's population. David suggested boosting the French system by basing funding on the percentage of a university's students who were the first in their families to pursue post-secondary education: at English schools, this figure averages 36% (only 20% at McGill), as opposed to nearly 50% at the province's leading French-language universities. An open letter signed by dozens of Quebec academics claimed that only half of McGill's medical graduates remain in Quebec, lamenting the "waste of resources." Quebec's education minister, Pierre Duchesne, echoed these sentiments, wondering aloud what "the Quebec nation" gained when foreign students came to study here and then left.
If we politely ignore the casual and shameless xenophobia expressed by supposedly educated people, the question becomes: What do the events of the past year and the various "solutions" tell us about university funding? Might there have been another way to handle the situation, one that would have even avoided the problem in the first place?
The complete incoherence of thought over this issue is made plain by the complaint that the share of students in English schools is triple the demographic weight of anglophones in Quebec. Most obviously, out-of-province students will vastly skew the demographics since they attend mostly McGill, Concordia and Bishop's. Their presence is a testament to the quality of these institutions and enriches Quebec society in ways that someone with Pierre Duchesne's mindset could never hope to understand. Besides, the idea that these two figures should track each other is simply bizarre. Students―English and French, Quebecers and others―decide which university to attend based on a large number of factors, including language, of course, but also including the quality of their education, for instance. Many francophones attend McGill because a degree from one of world's best universities (for now) opens doors that few others can. Of course, to people like the professors who signed the open letter, educating such people is simply a waste of resources.
A Better Way
The fundamental problem with the current model is that university budgets are controlled entirely by politicians and are therefore based not on economics but on politics. Indeed, a cursory examination of the history of university fees in Quebec shows that tuition hikes are entirely a function of political will: whether they go through is based entirely on which side, the students or the government, blinks first. The result? When Marois backed down on tuition hikes in 1996, her retreat applied only to students who were Quebec residents. Their out-of-province colleagues―without a vote in the province's elections and anglophone, to boot―saw their fees rise by $1,200 a year, eventually reaching more than double the amount paid by Quebecers, whose tuition remained frozen for a decade. Conversely, an agreement with the French government allows 10,000 French students to pay in-province tuition fees at a cost to the public purse of $84 million. In other words, politically desirable foreigners pay significantly less to study in Quebec than do politically undesirable Canadians. The percentage of French students who remain in Quebec after graduating―indeed the very existence of this arrangement―was curiously omitted from the criticisms of the English-language schools for producing too many graduates with broad horizons.
Setting aside the fact that the proposal to base university funding on "first generation" status is explicitly intended as an indirect attack on English schools, it too improperly turns university funding into a tool of social engineering. It is, of course, totally unfair to penalize someone for their family's school attendance, which is totally beyond their control. What's more, such an approach suggests that a first-generation student is somehow "better" than one whose family has a track record of academic success, as if a family tradition of higher education means that it is not so important whether you yourself received a university degree.
Worst of all, the public funding model actually legitimizes the nativist complaints mentioned above. Shouldn't the state prefer subsidizing students who are more likely to pay taxes here, rather than those liable to pursue their careers elsewhere? On an individual level, if voters prefer to host Parisians rather than Torontonians, well, aren't they entitled to decide that they would rather subsidize their linguistic compatriots? When you foot the bill, you should have a say in how the money is spent.
The simplest, fairest and most reasonable way to finance higher education would be to end the state's role and let supply and demand determine fees, enrolment rates, languages of instruction and so on. Tuition disputes would be a thing of the past. (When was the last time a gym's members took to the streets over a fee increase?) Politicians could no longer manipulate funding to achieve political objectives (i.e., to win votes). The politically powerful, such as local student groups, could no longer extract favours from the state to the detriment of the voiceless and unconnected, such as foreign students.
Many believe that such a move would put university education out of reach for all but the rich, but this argument is suspect. First of all, a 2007 Statistics Canada analysis determined that financial constraints accounted for only 12% of the higher enrolment rates among students from wealthier families. Almost all of the variation was explained instead by quality of secondary education, parental influence and previous academic achievement. While many of those factors relate to income―ability to hire tutors, pay for private school, etc.―the point is that tuition rates themselves are only a minor factor in determining whether a student goes on to university.
Second, a University of Sherbrooke economist calculated that tripling tuition fees would bring in an extra $246 million in revenues, which would be more than enough to offer free tuition to the estimated 22,000 students who could not afford the higher rates. Top US schools such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton already base their financial aid packages on need, on the theory that anyone who is accepted should be able to attend. Indeed, general tuition subsidies amount to welfare for the rich, whereas means-tested aid packages can target those in genuine need of assistance.
Finally, the entire premise of the argument is that university education is, in itself, a good thing. To be blunt, it is not. Students who attend university not out of personal interest but instead due to social norms and parental pressure are mostly wasting time and money-mostly other people's money-earning a degree that does not stimulate them intellectually and often will not even help them get a job. And yet we teach young students that university attendance is a mark of intelligence and success whereas, for example, trade schools are for those lesser lights unable to aspire to loftier endeavours. The result is credential inflation, in which a BA is seen not as the mark of a sharp and creative mind, but rather as a reflection of little more than basic literacy.
If we want to avoid more disruptions, more protests, more political manipulation, more xenophobia, and if we want to put our universities on a path toward long-term financial stability, the answer is not a tuition hike or more public money. Rather, it is to liberate universities from the clutches of the state and entrust them to those best-suited to run them: management, employees, and students. Freeing universities to experiment with different approaches and to compete for incoming students is far more likely to generate good outcomes for all concerned than a top-down, uniform, bureaucratic model ever could.
* Adam Allouba is a business lawyer based in Montreal and a graduate of the McGill University Faculty of Law. He also holds a B.A. and an M.A. in political science from McGill.