As an Ontario student, I have no special love for the preferential rates Quebec gives its students. But if Quebec gives its students a bargain, my resentment is as much towards Ontario for not doing the same for me. In that light, I cannot support a tuition hike. Raising Quebec rates-even to parity with the rest of the country-is a big move, and one that seems far too easy of a solution for a problem tied to issues far beyond university education.
The problem is certainly grave. McGill’s budget deficit is real, and the school’s efforts to ease it without tuition increases have led to larger class sizes, deferred maintenance procedures, and salary freezes for staff. Tuition does not provide enough money, and somewhere between federal and provincial government transfers the shortfall is not being made up. This dissent fully grasps the gravity of McGill’s financial situation. It believes, though, that tuition rates are only one variable affecting it, and not necessarily the most important to address.
Part of this comes from skepticism of anything too politically expedient. It is true that Quebec governments have tended to support tuition freezes. But governments around North America have struggled with low tuition over the past couple decades, and now filling funding gaps with higher user fees appears to be an attractive option even in Quebec. Those fees will mainly affect the younger, poorer demographic that has little political power and notoriously low levels of participation. It seems unlikely that Jean Charest and company fear dissatisfied undergraduates as much as, say, corporate powers that would vigorously fight a tax increase. This does not in itself mean that raising tuition is wrong. It does, however, make it seem unlikely that the politicians in favour of tuition increases have seriously considered more difficult alternatives.
Alternatives to tuition increases are abundant. Money could be raised through reshuffling government spending, raising income or corporate taxes, increasing federal education contributions, inviting more corporate money for infrastructure projects, or even more creative ways of which it is difficult for a non-expert to conceive. I do not mean to say that I endorse any or all of these options. But options are there, and therefore the problem is not lacking the means to fund education, it is failing to prioritize it. High school and health care were also once thought to be too expensive to fund. Societies who now prize these as indispensable public goods would be aghast at suggestions to stop providing them.
What price to place on education, and whether or not it is a right, are issues that tend to offer more questions than answers. I intend to keep asking them. But without a thorough exploration by the government of all possible solutions, and an explanation of why tuition increases are still absolutely necessary, when it comes to a higher price for education I’m not sold.