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A Pyrrhic victory
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October 1, 2012
QUEBEC CITY, QC, Oct 1, 2012/ Troy Media/ – With the school year now well underway, the upheaval of the spring student crisis has abated in Quebec. For the opponents of the former Liberal government’s tuition fee increase, the Parti Quebecois’ election stands as a vindication for their cause as new Premier Pauline Marois has scrapped the proposal.
While feeling justified in their battle for lower tuition rates, this victory will be short lived at best, and Pyrrhic at worse.
The PQ government’s decision to kill the much-needed fee increase will likely precipitate the decline of the province’s institutions of higher learning, which have struggled for years compared to other Canadian schools, largely due to budgetary constraints. By many accounts, Quebec’s universities lack tens of millions of dollars in funding annually, a shortfall that cannot be addressed by the financial prestidigitation of the government alone. It is therefore almost a certainty that this move will both add to Quebec’s already substantial debt and further the decrepitude of the province’s universities.
With as many as 70 per cent of Quebecers having been in favour of the fee increase, the PQ and their supporters in the student movement and the unions are only delaying the inevitable: university fees are bound to rise eventually. After Marois’ fledging government collapses – which it is all but certain to do within a matter of months – it is guaranteed that a new government, be it under a renewed Liberal party or the Coalition Avenir Quebec, will put a tuition fee increase back on the table.
Having cynically bent to the whims of the violent student protests in the spring, Marois and the PQ have now left themselves open to what are bound to be even more outlandish demands in the future. The most radical of Quebec’s student groups, CLASSE, is already launching a campaign for free university tuition as the freeze on the province’s fees, which remain among the lowest in North America, is not enough for them. It would appear that the students, given an inch, are now going for the mile, and the PQ has neither the moral or philosophical ground to stand on to stop them.
The tuition fee debate both in Quebec and the rest of Canada is often portrayed in one of two ways, both of which fail to accurately explain the situation. The first is as an ideological schism between ‘neo-liberals’, who are in favour of the increase, and so-called ‘progressives’ who oppose it – as if such facile labels had any real meaning to most Canadians.
The second paints the issue as an inter-generational conflict pitting young against old. While the student issue is inherently youth-centered, there remain significant divisions among Quebec’s young people over how this issue should be resolved. A testament to this was that barely 30 per cent of Quebec’s university students voted for a strike in early 2012, while the remaining 70 per cent remained in class.
Yet rather than being philosophical or generational, the debate about how we fund our universities needs to be practical, and it must also be framed in a global context. In most markets, the price of education, like any other good or service, is largely based on the benefits, both monetary and academic, that one can be expected to derive from it. This quantitative and qualitative analysis is the most important calculation one should consider in the decision to pursue higher education. While it may offend some to view education in such crass financial terms, it is a fact of the world we live in. This is why universities like Harvard cost more than others, and why degrees in areas such as medicine are so expensive.
In this context, with Quebec’s universities grossly underfunded, raising tuition fees, while not a guaranteed method of improving the quality of our schools, is a vital way to enable universities to offer their students a quality education. This is even more critical when the provincial government, which already subsidizes 87 per cent of the cost of an undergraduate degree in Quebec, is drowning in debt and has yet to come up with a coherent policy of how it will fund the financial shortfall at the province’s universities, to say nothing of the new loans and bursaries the PQ now proposes.
Although the opponents of the tuition fee increase may relish in their victory, it is the students themselves who will ultimately suffer from the financial suffocation of Quebec’s universities as the caliber of our schools continues to slide.
Once again, the PQ has demonstrated that, under its leadership, Quebec can expect not only cynical governance, but policy-making that is fundamentally detrimental to the future progress of the province. The education file is likely only the tip of the iceberg.
Troy Media syndicated columnist Sandy White is a former advisor to Conservative Member of Parliament Christian Paradis and is currently studying law at Laval University in Quebec City.
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