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Quebecers: Wrong on Tuition, But Not Laissez-Faire

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As you might have heard, approximately 200, 000 Quebec students were out in the streets of Montreal protesting tuition hikes Thursday. This issue has been all over the Quebec media for the past weeks and has sharply divided public opinion. Although personally I am in favour of the proposed raise of tuition fees, I am much more concerned about what this movement has exposed, not just about this issue specifically but in a broader sense. I'll get to that right after putting these increases into perspective.

So first of all, let's put one myth to rest right away: Hiking those tuition fees will not affect accessibility, especially not for the less fortunate despite what the anti-hike movement wants the population to believe. Their main argument is that going from $2168 to $3793 per year will keep students from more modest backgrounds from going to university.

In reality, if a tuition freeze (like Quebec has had for about 20 years) was the solution to helping students from less privileged backgrounds get into university, the province would rank as the best in Canada in university enrollment, since Quebec has the lowest tuition fees in the country right? In reality, it doesn't: Quebec ranks near the bottom of the pack in university attendance relative to total population.

In fact, across the country, there is no significant correlation between tuition fees and the percentage of people who attend university. Some provinces that have the highest fees rank near the highest, some near the middle; there simply is no link between tuition fees and accessibility of higher studies in Canada.

Also, historically, provinces that have hiked their fees did not see a decrease in accessibility, and their hikes were even more important: even at $3793, the annual tuition fees in Quebec would not only still be way below the Canadian average, they would be the third lowest, behind only Newfoundland and Manitoba.

Given that context, it is definitely not exaggerated to stop wasting money on the tuition freeze as in fact the current system promotes inequality much more than the changes proposed by the government.

Since the majority of university students do not currently need financial aid programs and that artificially maintaining low tuition fees subsidises mostly students from the middle-class and above, it is unfair to those who really need the taxpayers' help to pay their studies: the lower income students. Helping them is just what the tuition hike proposes to do, inject tens of millions more into student loans and financial aid for those who really need it, instead of a massive subsidy for all, as is the case currently.

Even worse, some are decrying that this is a privatizing of our education system. Actually, instead of paying for 87 per cent of the total cost, government (taxpayers) will now only pay 83 per cent. That is still pretty far from being unreasonable. They are also protesting by saying education has to be a priority. That is absolutely true, and that is the reason the tuition boost is necessary: to have more money to invest in the quality of Quebec's post-secondary education.

So basically, their claims are unfounded, or at the very least misguided. One thing I must concede is how this movement is succeeding in getting Quebeckers to come out of the bubble of indifference they have gotten into relating to public affairs. That can only be a good thing given the alarming trend of low turnout and low interest in politics at any level. That chronic indifference is, in my opinion, what is most threatening for the province and for the whole country.

With major decisions and debates coming up and heading into an important provincial election, if the general population takes the same interest in some of the other more serious issues, it will only be beneficial to all in the long term. That being said, I am very adamant that the movement of protest should be redirected towards something more worrisome like the record debt that will actually cost all students way more than the hike itself.

What is frightening is the innate resistance to change associated colloquially with Quebec society might actually be absolutely and undeniably true. This proposed change is very minor compared to everything else that will have to be tackled sooner or later to fix Quebec's ever-growing debt, very high taxes, demographic challenges in healthcare costs, alarming high-school dropout rates, poor economic performance, low private investments, high-cost generous social programs and subsidies, etc.

The fact that there is so much outrage and so much hostility coming out of this warns that any reform that affects Quebec that will inevitably have to be considered by either the federal or provincial government on any subject will meet fierce opposition by the proponents of the status quo.