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.




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Quebec tuition: the view from an American at McGill

  1. I believe that these students are the product of their parent’s generation and sadly, they will face reality very soon. My daughter is enrolled at U of Guelph and I believe that the tuition is reasonable even though it is double the rate of Quebec’s. What the problem is is housing! Back to Quebec. If these kids continue to demand that the Government lower tuition, do they not realize that they will be the ones paying off the higher amount when they begin working? My wife’s family lives in Montreal and I constantly hear complaining about the cost of schooling, not by the kids but by their parents. I hesitate to say this, but I actually believe that somehow the rest of Canada’s workforce will somehow be the bearer of this expense because Quebec will somehow pressure the Federal Government into subsidizing the tuition. Sad but I believe it to be true.

  2. Surprisingly, less developed countries like Brazil and even Iran have been able to offer respectable university education (i.e. the Sharif University of Technology, or the Federal University of Bahia) for free without particularly high taxes.

    Their solution? They don’t just admit any idiot with a 90 avg in high school (sadly VERY easy to get in North America nowadays) or a high SAT score (that is a joke, especially the math part). Each university has its own extremely tough entrance exam and thus only a select few are admitted, which reduces the burden on the taxpayer. The requirements to stay enrolled are also very high. I’m not saying this is a fair process – test scores alone do not dictate intelligence – but filtering has to start somewhere.

    While Canadian universities have good standards in their teaching and research, the same cannot be said of their admissions criteria and the criteria to stay enrolled once in. For example, at the University of Toronto, one is more or less guaranteed admission with a high school average over 85. Once enrolled, one only needs to maintain a GPA of 1.50/4.00 to avoid getting kicked out. At UBC, one can literally type in his high school grades on the website, click submit, and immediately receive acceptance.

    American universities are just as bad with the exception of those exclusive ivy leagues. The SAT hardly makes a difference in terms of barriers to entry.

    All this stems from the fact that North American universities just want to squeeze tuition and room/board fees out of as many people as possible, even those who clearly aren’t suited for university yet are allowed to stay due to low requirements. In contrast, countries like Brazil and Iran want their universities to cater only to those who truly want to be there and who truly can handle it.

    I know quite a few people who go to university just for the sake of “saving face” and/or getting a degree, and they are typically in arts programs and have zero interest in what they learn, and are barely scraping by with the minimum GPAs. The taxpayers subsidize part of their education, only to have them be 50k or more in debt after graduation with very poor employment prospects. Universities are doing a huge disservice to them and to taxpayers by not kicking them out.

    Someday, I hope higher education can be reformed such that it is available for free without any impact on taxation.

    • You say:

      “I know quite a few people who go to university just for the sake of “saving face” and/or getting a degree, and they are typically in arts programs and have zero interest in what they learn, and are barely scraping by with the minimum GPAs. The taxpayers subsidize part of their education, only to have them be 50k or more in debt after graduation with very poor employment prospects.”

      And then you say:

      “Someday, I hope higher education can be reformed such that it is available for free without any impact on taxation.”

      Are you trying to say:

      1) Every one should be able to save face?
      2) “Available for free” – are you saying that the profs will give up their salary and be willing to teach in a park?
      3) Are you really trying to say that “higher learning” be reformed? If so, I think you can download all kinds of videos and learn anything you may need online today. Nothing really prevents you from learning.
      4) That you have taken the SAT and scored very high and you think that it is poor standardization?

      You also said:

      “They don’t just admit any idiot with a 90 avg in high school (sadly VERY easy to get in North America nowadays) or a high SAT score (that is a joke, especially the math part)…”

      There is little difference between SAT and an entrance examination. Both are trying to pick the best of the crop. SAT is better administered as everyone takes the same exam in a single setting. For these universities you mentioned, one may have to go to each university and sit in their exam multiple times.

      Have you heard about SAT2s and APs. Are you sure you are not discounting a great system that already works? Do you know that jobless rates in these countries that you mentioned.

      I would like to add that I agree that low tuition in Canada makes “savinging face” at the cost of taxpayer money possible. If higher education is to be aligned with the needs of public (jobs), Community College/ Certificate Courses should be encouraged.

      It would be good if Canada also uses SAT. What are we afraid of? FAILURE? OR, that one may then be able to compare us to Americans and say “Canadians scored lower”? If we are not afraid, then let us compete. Let us make SATs a part of the HS process and University admission process.

      Did you know that best and the brightest students in the world are these days taking SATs so that they may get admission in a US university.

      I think SAT is one of the missing pillars, that can support a better Canadian education. School GPA alone could still have a bias. SAT is fair, transparent and uniform evaluation.

  3. Are we really comparing Sharif Tech to McGill?

  4. I new this kind of rhetoric would loom its ugly head. There is no doubt an ideological discussion and of course, realistically tuitions will have to be raised somewhat, but what really bothers are the elitist “I’m more worthy of education than you are discourses.” Just because one struggles through university does not mean one is not worth being educated. Everyone is paying tuition fees through taxes and in the long wrong we all become better citizens for it. There is such a dumbing down in our society already, why in the world would you want to discourage people from educating themselves? Education is not just about getting jobs. When the sole and spirit are satisfied, one is less in need of all the money focused trappings of our society and can make do with far less. And by the way, having less breeds creativity !

  5. “American universities are just as bad with the exception of those exclusive ivy leagues. The SAT hardly makes a difference in terms of barriers to entry”

    Not true. High test scores are sought by the top 100 schools in the USNews rankings. Northeastern University in Boston (ranked 56th) has higher SAT scores than McGill.

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