The Problem with Quebec

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute

Two days ago, Quebec Deputy Premier Line Beauchamp vacated her position in the Quebec government over the tuition increase impasse between the provincial government and the student union. Apparently, the student union has won, which is too bad because they couldn’t be more wrong.

Several months ago, the liberal government, headed by Premier Jean Charest, but in this case, led by DP Beauchamp, suggested a seven-year increase in tuition which would essentially double tuition during that period. Current fees have remained at about $1,900/year since 1998 (see my publication, Changes in Tuition Policy: Natural Experiments in Five Countries). This new proposal would increase tuition $1,625, or $254/year for seven years, bringing tuition charges to approximately $3,500/year. On the surface, this increase may seem inhospitable, inequitable, if not intolerable to some. And for sure, the student union felt that way. Protest after protest, including blood in the streets (one protest resulted in 400 injuries, including two men with head trauma and one student who lost the sight in one eye), ensued. Ms. Beauchamp was forced to step down to curb the violence.

Readers outside of Quebec should understand that it is a very unique province in Canada. Obviously, language is a big piece of this, but their culture, contained in part by language, is also similarly unique. Their higher education system, like Quebec itself, is also very unique. The vocational or “college” level is called CEGEP, and is an articulated system between high school and university. Their university-level system is typical of most higher education, but the totality of the Quebec higher education system is different from anywhere else in North America. And this is also a problem because of the lack of parallels with other provinces and countries. But at the university level, McGill, UMontreal, and Laval are international leaders in higher education.

The Problem with Quebec, so to speak, is that they are too unique. Not only are their institutions unique (which can be as much a plus as a negative), but so is their funding system. For decades Quebec froze their tuition levels (see my commentary on March 17, 2011) which has resulted in the lowering of educational quality.

But readers must understand that there are several dimensions to a frozen policy. First, one must understand that each year that there exists a tuition freeze equates to a revenue reduction for the institution (or system). Due to inflation, a freeze is actually a reduction of tuition revenues of between 2-5 percent, depending on consumer price index ratios. Second, and most importantly, is that over the course of time, if you plant the seed of a tuition freeze policy, then the government must come up with the remainder of budget funds to make up for inflation, let alone the higher costs of inflation in higher education.

And none of this has happened in Quebec.

So what does this mean? If the Quebec government cannot significantly increase the funding to institutions, it has little choice but to pass that cost on to students and let them fund the institutions. According to the student union, they don’t support this new policy because they don’t trust institutions to prudently use the funds, considering that they “wasted” public funds before will continue to do so. Antithetically, Quebec institutions have also used those funds to educate thousands of Quebec (and non-Quebec) students over the decades. They had to be doing something right, even when they didn’t have the appropriate funds to do so.

Not to be lost in this discussion is that, over the years, the quality of education in Quebec has surely disintegrated. I don’t have distinct proof of this, but ask anyone who is willing to be honest. By formula, one can ask for more return on investment and efficiency on the part of faculty, staff, and other educators to make up for lack of funds. But after several decades of “same,” there is surely a level reached where there exists no additional return on investment; for all intent, you simply can’t squeeze any more out of a particular policy lemon (see important lemon recipe below).

Quebec is falling behind. The Quebec government came up with a suitable solution to their funding issues. Students didn’t like it because, well, why would they want to pay more? I agree with them. As a student, I wouldn’t want to pay more, either. But aren’t these the same students that also want the top one percent of earners to pay more? Will they not reap the rewards of their heavily-subsidized education to warrant a higher tuition? By the way, their tuition would STILL be much lower than the rest of Canada after seven years. So we aren’t talking about anything bombastic.

To be fair, the students are worried about the slipperly slope, and that’s why we have student advocates. Where does this end? If we use the US model, that slipperly slope continues sloping, with tuition/fee charges escalating far beyond anything remotely affordable by students. So students, and policymakers in Canada, should take notice.

But what the government of Quebec offered was a fair compromised. Increase the quality of education by increasing revenues, part through government funds, and part from private funds (read: students). This is equitable, especially considering the need-based financial aid in Quebec and Canada.

To the student groups in Quebec, and perhaps throughout Canada, you need to make a partnership here for the betterment of all students and future workers. All you are doing now is taking the rug out from under higher education. Quebec higher education will continue to flounder if a deal is not reached.

Delilah Martini

3 oz Vodka

1/3 or ½ squeezed lemon

½ oz Contreau

Shake with ice vigorously for 10-15 seconds so that ice crystals are in the solution. Pour. Drink.

One thought on “The Problem with Quebec

  1. Jeff Donnelly, Director Institutional Research, Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. says:

    What we are witnessing in Quebec is a glaring example of the primary issue facing Post-secondary education in Canada. That is, nobody wants to pay for it. Everybody values it but nobody wants to pay for it. In particular, the three primary and most easily identified beneficiaries of PSE – students, industry and governments (repesenting society) – don’t want to pay.

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