Raising Quebec tuition: the least bad option

Editorial/Opinion by

Last week, McGill Principal Heather Munroe-Blum travelled to Quebec City to report to the provincial government on the ups and downs the university has faced in the past three years. In her speech, Munroe-Blum repeated many of the standard talking points: she touted the university’s research, emphasized McGill’s international stature, and cheered the university’s intellectual contributions to Quebec.

But most importantly, Munroe-Blum once again lobbied Quebec to allow McGill to increase the amount of undergraduate tuition it can charge. That’s a position the Tribune ultimately supports.

Aside from specific grants from the federal government (such as Canada Research Chairs) and private philanthropy, McGill is funded by two main sources: tuition revenue and money from Quebec City. Unlike private universities in the United States, our university’s endowment provides only a tiny proportion of its operating budget.

Quebec’s monetary contributions to universities, however, have been declining for years, leaving McGill and other schools in the province underfunded and deeply in debt. McGill’s lack of money has kept classes large, created a paucity of student jobs on campus, and resulted in a huge backlog of maintenance projects, despite recent stimulus contributions from the federal and provincial governments.

No one, of course, wants to pay more tuition. But with Quebec City unwilling to increase its financial commitment to the province’s universities, the Tribune doesn’t see another practical option for addressing McGill’s financial problems.

Fortunately, Quebec students are better able than those of other provinces to absorb a modest increase in tuition fees, because they pay much less than students in most of Canada. The typical undergraduate in Quebec, according to Statistics Canada, paid just $2,316 in tuition last year. In comparison, undergraduates in Ontario, British Columbia, and Nova Scotia pay more than $7,500 per year.

Moreover, only Quebec charges in-province students a significantly lower tuition rate than it charges those from the rest of the country. A Quebecer at Queen’s University pays the same price as a student from Ontario, whereas an Ontarian at McGill pays more than double what Quebecers pay. Canadians at McGill from outside Quebec-who make up more than a quarter of the undergraduate student body-paid about $7,100 in tuition and ancillary fees last year. Their fellow students from Quebec paid about $3,500.

Faced with these numbers, the Tribune is endorsing a modest increase in tuition fees for Quebec students attending McGill. Because Quebecers pay more in taxes than the average Canadian, tuition should not necessarily rise to the amount students pay in other provinces. The government has a duty to shoulder a greater share of the education burden than, say, Nova Scotia does for its students. McGill may also want to consider increasing tuition for international students, for many of whom, especially Americans, the university is still a relative bargain.

The Tribune insists that a significant portion of the revenue generated by any tuition increases must be set aside for those McGill students for whom the rise in fees would be genuinely unaffordable. Furthermore, such aid should be provided on an equitable basis, taking care not to let students whose families earn middling wages fall through the cracks. The university should also dedicate a substantial portion of the additional income to expanding student employment on campus, enabling students to offset the cost of books and increasing general living expenses.

Though we recognize it is not the most popular position on campus, the Tribune believes that modest increases combined with better financial aid is the most practical solution to the university’s difficult fiscal situation.