Quebec tuition: the view from an American at McGill

Anti-tuition argument never made sense to me

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Canada and the United States are broadly similar nations mostly separated by public policy. Last year’s tuition debate in Quebec shined a spotlight on not only the difference in education policy between the two countries, but also on the “Two Solitudes” cultural gap between English Canada and Quebec.

As an American studying at McGill University, I have a unique perspective on the tuition debate, which is sure to flare up again next week during a provincial summit on higher education.

The average price of an American college education has continued to rise, with tuition at four-year private universities now averages $29,056. Ancillary fees like room and board add about an extra $10,000. Similar increases have occurred at public universities. In Canada, the average tuition is $5,581 a year. In Quebec it’s $2,168.

That difference may create sticker shock for Canadians, but in the U.S., unlike Canada, most students receive substantial needs-based subsides that reduce the ‘actual’ average tuition at private universities to just under $13,000. A great redistribution of money from richer to poorer students in the U.S. leads to average student debts that are surprisingly comparable in the two countries.

I had the misfortune of encountering the Quebec tuition debate very quickly after the start of my first year. Still acclimating to the new and somewhat colder environment, I read of the controversy in the campus papers. The sticking point was the former Liberal government’s planned increase of $1,625 over five years for an eventual total of over $3,000. Despite the hike being only $325 each year, the proposal stirred passions. A general strike was called and, at its height, protests numbering in the thousands were a near-nightly occurrence, especially after the passage of the highly controversial Law 78, which restricted demonstrations.

As an American used to far more expensive university tuition—even international rates at McGill were substantially lower than those at several of the universities I considered in the States—the anti-hike argument did not speak to me on either an individual or ideological level.

Those instincts turned out to be correct. Much of the rhetoric against the increase cast the proposal as a Trojan Horse to drastically reduce public funding for higher education in the province. That claim seems ironic when you consider that the current minority Parti Québécois (PQ) government—who dutifully rolled back the hikes after supporting the students and taking power in September—are now themselves enacting sweeping cuts to higher education.

Aside from their financially and ideologically dubious counter-proposal for completely free university education, those against the increase also eagerly evoked the spectre of American-style tuition levels if the hikes went through, claiming that the $1,625 increase would be a step toward education inaccessible to all but the wealthy. This too was wrong. American university tuition has ballooned to its exorbitant levels because of factors unique to the U.S. system. For example, universities have added luxurious amenities and gone on expensive building sprees to attract high-scoring affluent students. Furthermore, at the Canadian level, some research suggests little correlation between low-income university participation and lower tuition rates.

The overall McGill campus occupied a unique ground during the debate. Its mostly English-speaking student body and its larger proportion of out of province and international students like myself meant substantially less support for the strike. Because of this, the tuition debate instead morphed into an abstract ideological turf war with little impact. The majority of the student body was at best ambivalent to the strike. The Arts faculty’s general assembly, the largest referendum on participating, saw a 55 per cent vote against the strike motion. The strikes that did occur on campus were largely organized in several departments by a small group of campus radicals, through small and constitutionally dubious departmental general assemblies.

McGill’s experience with the tuition debate is similar to how the issue was viewed nationally in Canada; the student strike struggled to receive much attention outside of the province until violence at protests and the outcry over Law 78 propelled it onto the English Canadian news agenda. In the rest of Canada, the protests were generally seen as a group of entitled students making unreasonable demands. Internationally, the Economist characterized the striking students as demanding “free lunches.” Like McGill’s student activists, alternative and left-leaning media outlets were almost effusive in their praise for the protests, but others weren’t.

But now, with the hikes—and the extra funding they would have given the province’s universities—history, there has been a notable lack of soul searching about the direction our university will go.

With the addition of the cuts announced by the PQ, I fear major changes for the worse are on the horizon. Unfortunately for the student body at large, the debate about what to do in the face of these cuts has been severely lacking so far. Let’s hope these voices are heard at the education summit next week.

Abraham Moussako is a U1/second year Political Science student. He writes for the McGill Tribune.