It finally happened. Quebec will soon be saying good bye and good riddance to its tuition freeze. Finance Minister Raymond Bachand, who announced the change in his budget this week, said “students need to pay a fair share.” Why? Because “We want our universities to be world class.” In response, a McGill Daily editorial called the remarks “offensive” and argued that “These planned hikes, however large they may be, must immediately be met with organized student action.”
Oh boy. Here come the student strikes protests. As much as various Quebec “student leaders” want to frame the issue as one over a just or unjust society, it is nothing more than a conflict between buyers and sellers that is unhelpfully, and arbitrarily, mediated by the government. When students complain about the cost of tuition, it is not much different than if they were complaining about the cost of computers.
But what about poorer students unable to pay for their education? That debate should have ended long ago. There is very little evidence that supports the conclusion that the cost of tuition is a barrier to pursuing a post-secondary education.
At the same time, I am not entirely void of sympathy for students facing tuition hikes. What does the finance minister mean when he says that students should “pay a fair share”? The only criteria given to support the idea that Quebec tuition is too low is that other provinces have allowed tuition to increase, and, of course, Quebec’s universities have been lobbying for tuition to rise for years. So while the government has until now favoured students (or buyers) in keeping tuition low, it will soon favour universities (sellers) in allowing it to rise. There is no objective reason why tuition should rise or decline. Whether it is low or high, the price will be set arbitrarily by the government, and, it will largely reflect the balance of success of the lobbying efforts of various groups.
If there were a free market in education, students and universities would be left to negotiate the cost on their own. Universities would have no choice but to deliver high quality education at a reasonable price, lest they lose students to competitors. Under the current framework, governments give operating grants to universities on a basis that does not always ensure higher quality education. As such, higher tuition fees might simply be used to swell university bureaucracies, which already rival that of the federal government. Or they might be used to keep professional programs inexpensive, while arts and science students see little benefit from a university’s new-found wealth. There is simply little incentive to actually improve services for students.
When the price of anything else is influenced by governments, through subsidies or trade barriers, as well as price controls, there is always at least some resistance, or at least a recognition that the government is buckling to one pressure group or another. Wouldn’t it be nice if the education sector were subject to the same scrutiny?