Last week voters in France and Greece turned their backs on fiscal discipline, preferring the illusion that it’s not necessary to fix their own problems. As Senior Writer Michael Petrou explains in his story on the EU crisis (“Europe votes its troubles away,” page 26), austerity and responsibility are not always the most attractive ballot options.
This week, university students in Quebec will put their own grasp of reality to the test. After several months of often-violent protests against planned tuition fee increases, Quebec students are voting on the government’s latest proposal that maintains the hikes but creates a new and fairer system for student loan repayment. Early reaction from students opposing the plan suggests reality will once again be stymied. For now.
It is beyond debate that a university degree provides substantial economic benefits to the holder. The average after-tax income boost enjoyed by a university graduate is on the order of $15,000. Per year. Society at large may benefit from a well-educated workforce, but these gains are disproportionately weighted toward students themselves. It’s only proper students pay their fair share.
With the province in a fiscal crunch, the Quebec government has decided post-secondary students should increase their contribution to 17 per cent of total education costs. Quebec, of course, currently has the lowest tuition in the country. After the proposed increase of $1,625 spread over seven years, and assuming other provinces maintain current policies, Quebec’s tuition rates will end up higher than just one other province—Newfoundland. Adjusted for inflation, the new Quebec tuition rate will be no higher than what was in place in 1968. It’s still a tremendous bargain.
Premier Jean Charest, a politician not known for his rigidity, has rightly declared the tuition increase to be “non-negotiable.” In an effort to sway students, however, the province has already made numerous concessions. It has agreed to investigate the possibility of lowering extra fees charged by schools, create a university budget oversight body and switch to income-contingent loans.
To the extent tuition may pose a financial barrier for low-income students and their families (and a preponderance of research suggests it doesn’t), the province has offered to make repayment proportional to post-graduation income. “The student who earns less will not have to repay as much,” explained Raymond Bachand, Quebec’s finance minister.
All told, it’s a great deal for students. And popular support is strongly behind both Charest and the sense that students ought to pay a reasonable share of their own education.
In response, the loudest of the three groups purporting to represent students has made a series of nonsensical counter-demands. The group CLASSE wants to limit the amount of research that goes on at provincial universities, prevent schools from advertising and halt new construction. In other words, they want to put an end to competition, growth and the creation of new knowledge on campus. Not exactly a road map to a world-class education system.
CLASSE then ventures deep into economic absurdity by demanding the province institute a capital tax on financial institutions to raise $410 million and make tuition entirely free. Capital taxes are the least efficient of all forms of taxation. And with the province reeling from a $184-billion debt, the last thing Quebec’s economy can afford is a massive new social mandate such as free tuition.
Quebec’s students, as with Greek and French voters, have the right to make their views known at the ballot box as well as in public. And everyone likes the idea of getting something for nothing. But outrageous demands and fantastical dreams must inevitably collide with fiscal reality. The rest of the province is neither willing nor able to pay the full cost of a quality university education. The students have a good deal in front of them. It’s time to get back to class.