Quebec’s assault on out-of-province students threatens education system

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Education access under threat as Quebec raises out-of-province tuition fees

Erika ShakerOn Oct. 13, the government of Quebec announced it would be doubling out-of-province tuition to $17,000 annually. This is a profound change from when I began my degree at McGill University in Montreal as a student from Ontario: I paid the same as in-province students – just over $500 per year in tuition fees.

Tuition at $19 per credit meant that Quebec recognized that higher education shouldn’t be the domain of only the well-to-do.

Today, my kid is staring down the recent announcement of $17,000 in tuition fees, double the Canadian average, starting in 2024 – which means she will not be transferring to Concordia next year, as she had planned.

Quebec has gone from the most to the least affordable for out-of-province students in the country within less than three decades. As someone who benefited tremendously from my time in Quebec, it’s truly heartbreaking.

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And particularly at this moment in time, I’m unclear why the provincial government would want to pursue a policy that is based on further pulling apart, on further division based on income, location and status rather than strengthening solidarity and working for more cohesiveness and shared knowledge.

Tuition hikes aren’t accidental: insufficient public funding means institutions pursue cost-cutting measures that have, among other things, entrenched a dependence on more precarious and lower-paid contract faculty.

Institutions also make up the shortfall in public revenue with private money: corporate handouts, sponsorships, wealthy donors, bequests. And, of course, tuition and other fees which download the impact of public dis-investment onto students and their families, disproportionately saddling working-class kids with student debt, the effects of which linger.

Some of this isn’t new. International students have been treated as cash cows for years: provinces would charge students from other countries much, much more to help “keep domestic fees low.” This was a deregulation trial balloon – and domestic fees continued to rise. Provinces began experimenting with how to increase fees for domestic students as well, through deregulation of fees for professional programs and charging more for out-of-province students to keep in-province fees, at least for now, low(er).

In the mid-1990s, Quebec went the two-tiered route, charging out-of-province students more than in-province students until fees mirrored the Canadian average. Quebec wasn’t alone in this multi-tier fee policy – Nova Scotia does it, and some provinces have grants for in-province students. Newfoundland, where tuition fees were once the lowest in the country as Quebec’s rose, now does it too.

Adding to the complexity, there’s the quagmire of loans/grants/debt forgiveness programs that students and families must also navigate.

This is all the logical extension of a fee-for-service model that’s been an abject failure. Universities, under this model, see students as increasingly desirable funding units. Considerations like parents’ bank accounts, province of residence, and cynical calculations about who can be charged more supersede a universal commitment to providing students with access to high quality, affordable, publicly accountable and publicly funded post-secondary education – regardless of income or location.

Education is more than lecture halls – it’s about the opportunity to leave home, experience new surroundings and meet people from other communities, provinces and countries. This is tremendously beneficial to students, the people they meet, and the communities they explore and contribute to – communities that become richer when students arrive from elsewhere.

After all, if governments consider tourism a benefit, why are they so reluctant to recognize the longer-term contribution made by students during the course of their education to local economies?

We know the benefits of access to higher education are profound – not just for students but for society, even beyond the economic return on investment. It results in a more civically engaged, healthier, more cohesive and compassionate society. Surely that’s worth investing in.

Erika Shaker is the national office director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

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By Erika Shaker

Erika Shaker is Director of the National Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. She also leads the CCPA’s Education Project, which was established in 1996, and since 2000 she edits the bi-annual popular education journal Our Schools/Our Selves. For almost three decades she has written and spoken on a wide range of education-related issues including privatization and commercialism, education finance, equity and affordability. She received her BA in History from McGill and her MA from the University of Guelph in English.

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