What hike? In its last budget, Charest’s government declared an in-province tuition hike of 1,625$ over 5 years.

Starting in fall 2012, tuition fees will be increased by 325$ per year, making the tuition bill go from 1,668$ to 3,793$ by 2017. The budget plans for 50-60% of that new money to be used for the “quality of research and education”, while the rest will be used for advertisement (“competitive advantage” of the universities) and salaries of managers and administrators. This hike will affect university students of all origins since all students have to pay in-province tuition fees. The additional fees for out-of-province and international students will also be increased, resulting in a “double hike” for those students. Why did the government make this decision? The government and the CRÉPUQ (Conference of Rectors and Principals of Quebec Universities) claim that our universities are underfunded by 620M$ and that the 2008 recession left the government without any money to correct the situation. According to proponents of the hike, education, as a personal investment, can no longer be afforded by the society and it is us – students and citizens – who should bear the individual costs of such services (call it an austerity measure). Are our universities really underfunded? In recent years, past governments have reduced the State revenues through various tax cuts. Had it been for those governments not to weaken our tax system, we would presently have enough money to answer the universities demands, if justified.

Why Students Should Oppose Tuition Hikes and Ask for Free Education

But the 620M$ underfunding is not justified: the so-called “underfunding” of our universities does not come from a real evaluation of their needs, but from a research comparing tuition fees of Quebec universities with those of other Canadian universities. In other words, if they have more elsewhere, then we should have more too. As for the chronic deficit of universities, it mainly comes from the decrease in governmental capital funding and from the recent increase in spending on corporate research. Universities revenues have in fact never stopped increasing: ancillary and administrative fees have gone up by 5% each year since the government started regulating them in 2007 (the rate of increase was higher before 2007) and a tuition hike of 500$ over 5 years ended this year. Therefore, the hike is not inevitable: it is a political choice and a matter of misfunding rather than underfunding. It is now our chance to decide if we want to let this happen or not. Won’t financial aid compensate? Not at all. The financial aid program (AFE - for Quebec students), has pretty much always been insufficient for the needs of most students (e.g. the program calculates 7$/day for food). Out-of-province financial aid programs (such as OSAP and StudentAid BC) offer even less to students here, since they are not studying in their home province. Even more, the planned increase in Québec’s financial aid will only benefit to those who receive the maximum amount of bursaries or loans, leaving a lot of students in need of money but left out of the financial aid program (around 60% of full-time students) without means to cope with the 1625$ increase. In addition, more loans means more debt. The expectation of a high debt is known to be a major barrier for students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Students will also work more in order to compensate for the increase, but researches show that working more than 20 hours a week can have a negative impact on academic performance and motivation.

Isn’t education a personal investment? Isn’t it normal that we are asked to pay our fair share? Education sure does benefit to students as individuals, but it offers a great deal of advantages to the rest of the society as well. A highly educated population means more revenues from income tax, less poverty, a lower crime rate, more involved citizens in the democratic process and less reliance on the State. Thus, education helps in reducing the needs in services and expenditures by the State while providing supplementary revenues. If the society as a whole benefits from this service, why shouldn’t we collectively fund education? Speaking of which, income taxes are a great way to make students pay their fair share. They differ from tuition fees in that they take into account the financial capacity of each individual: high tuition fees only affect those who don’t have a lot of money to begin with, forcing them to choose between withdrawing from school or being burdened with huge debts. What can we do against the hike? Since Fall 2010, a lot has already been done: a 30,000-name petition was handed in to the National Assembly of Québec; several demonstrations occurred, including the November 10 march of 30,000 participants; symbolic and direct actions of all kinds have been performed regularly since the announcement of the 2011-12 budget in April 2010; some student organizations have met with government representatives more than once on the issue, etc. Despite all this, the government’s answer is still a dry “no”. A vast majority of students across the province are now ready to go on an unlimited general strike, which has been used more than once in the past with great success in similar situations.

Do we have any alternatives to the hike? Yes. But if we do want our universities to have more money, we need to ask for it to be spent responsibly. Since the spending of money collected via tuition fees is not regulated, a good way to ensure proper spending (i.e. on education, not buildings or research contracts) would be to make the money transit through the government. Student organizations have already made some suggestions: the government could add a new income tax bracket, work toward eliminating tax evasion, reestablish a tax on capital, establish a corporate tax, cancel the last tax cuts, or even impose higher charges on mine companies. Another overlooked alternative is free education. Free education? Is this a joke? No! This option is often dismissed right away because it is considered utopian, but researches show that semi-free education would be possible in Québec, and at a decent cost (around 700M$, not a lot compared to the 3G$ the government has lost with tax cuts since 2001). The main argument for free education is to make higher education, as a public “good”, really accessible to all students regardless of their background. Presently, higher education is accessible, but only in theory, as some people are denied access to university only because of their material conditions. Free education is also about equality. Indeed, the presence of tuition fees, even low and/or with an adequate financial aid program, forces students in precarious financial conditions to accumulate high levels of debt, a supplementary source of stress putting their studies at risk. This is to say that those who have little are asked to make huge sacrifices in hope of improving their condition, while those who already have a lot have an easy access to higher education. Social inequalities are thus conserved throughout the education system.

Debt, aside from its negative effects on accessibility, also makes poor students pay more than wealthier students, as a bigger debt means having to pay more and for longer. As a matter of fact, while students from wealthy backgrounds are able to finish their studies with relatively little or no debt, their colleagues from impoverished milieus will have to pay interests on their student loan for years (or decades) before their education is “paid”. This means that the total cost is higher for the disadvantaged than for the wealthy. This is, of course, problematic: why should people who don’t have high financial capacities be asked to pay more than those who can afford to pay on-the-spot? Although some like to accuse free education of “subsidizing the rich”, it seems that this isn’t the case at all and that truly accessible education really is a matter of giving equal chances to all. Those who get rich, no matter their background, can give back to the society through a progressive income tax system later on in their lives. Free education is also about the social and non monetary values of education, as it provides society with the best (and not only the richest) historians, artists, physicians, philosophers, scientists, engineers, and so on. It is about ensuring social mobility, choice of career, the betterment and sharing of knowledge, as well as other social benefits of higher education (which were mentioned previously in this pamphlet). Free education, as well as increasing tuition fees, is a political and collective choice. Tuition hikes are not inevitable, just as having tuition fees at all. Some countries have opted for free education and now enjoy its individual and social benefits. What will we choose?

Useful links:  Free Education Montreal - a lot of interesting documents on the hike and free education http://freeeducationmontreal.org/library/  Quebec 2011-2012 Budget for the Funding of Universities http://www.budget.finances.gouv.qc.ca/Budget/20112012/en/documents/Educationen.pdf A website against the hike run by two provincial student federations http://1625wontpass.ca/ The CRÉPUQ research that established the 620M$ underfunding (in French) http://tinyurl.com/CREPUQ-research A governmental website justifying the hike http://www.droitsdescolarite.com/en/index.php A student-run website against the hike (basically a spoof of the governmental website) http://www.quebectuitionfees.ca/ A website against the hike run by another provincial student organization (in French) http://www.bloquonslahausse.com/ This pamphlet! Share the fun!! http://tinyurl.com/notuitionhike

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