Commentary | Tuition and our sense of entitlement

Quebec’s debt problem

The debate over tuition hikes, strikes, and the student movement in Quebec has been an issue of paramount importance over the past year, and is one that has managed to polarize McGill’s student body. Biased statistics from each side, along with heavily normative arguments about the future of higher education have misguided the argument. In my opinion, Quebec’s welfare state has reached an unsustainable point. The student movement must reconsider its calls for lower tuition in fear of rising provincial debt that will come back to bite it in the near future.

A report by the Desjardins groups cites Quebec’s gross public debt to GDP ratio to be at a whopping 94 per cent; this puts us in a similar range to countries such as Greece, Italy, and Japan. If the world has learned any lesson from the current European financial crisis, it is that such high levels of debt only lead to future economic losses. Financial Post’s Jonathan Kay recently used the term “souvlaki economics” to describe the current situation in Quebec. He argued that Quebec, similarily to Greece, is building an unsustainable and inefficient welfare state in which the populace simply takes government handouts for granted. The Quebec Auditor General’s office recently released a report criticizing the government for failing to reduce its debt burden, and stated that government debt is, in fact, rising faster than economic growth.

This brings us to the tuition problem. Students have grown used to Quebec’s subsidies and argue that they can easily continue if the government creates a corporate capital gains taxes and increases tax rates on the highest income bracket. They further argue that lowering tuition now will mean accessibility to future generations of Quebecois. These are both idealistic and short sighted claims Students need to stop pretending that fighting for lower tuition rates right now is in the interest of future generations. As with any interest group, short sightedness and personal debt concerns are overshadowing the larger, long runproblem of provincial debt. Henry Aubin from the Montreal Gazette argues that students need to worry more about provincial debt than personal debt since they have no control over the former. In his insightful piece, he argues that today’s students are no wiser than their over indulgent parents and must cut back on their expectations about what the government can provide for them.

When asked the question “where is the money coming from?” anti-tuition hike proponents give one magic answer: increase taxes for evil corporations and the rich folk who don’t deserve their money. Valid arguments for and against this issue can be made according to your ideology. However, the solutions seem unrealistic in the short run since they are difficult to implement. In a recovering Quebec economy, increasing taxes on corporations will only divert their investments to other provinces. Increasing taxes for the rich is an option, but it does not generate enough revenue for the government to solve our education problem and is difficult to do when they already face such high tax rates. Furthermore, increasing taxes for the middle class is out of the question since they already pay a relatively high percentage of income tax in Canada. The biggest concern I have with the tax argument, however, is that students automatically believe all that extra revenue must go into universities and higher education and don’t mention Quebec’s fledgling health care system or its Social Security program to help out an aging population? Why not put more money into poverty- reducing initiatives? The absurdity of this argument is worsened by the fact that many of the same activists who argue against tuition hikes are adamantly opposed to any corporate influences on campus. In the end, where would university funding come from?

As an Indian citizen who has spent significant amounts of time in the United States, the concept of a granny state with high taxes and predominant social benefits is one I am deeply skeptical about. Activist inisistence on relying on government benefits while decrying it for being inefficient and corrupt seems impractical and inefficient to me. I believe that many international students, like myself, come from a background that rewards the efficiencies of private enterprises and looks at increased governmental involvement with skepticism. An obvious reference point comes from south of the border, where many of McGill’s international students come from. I do not mean to put the American educational system on a pedestal, but I am appalled by the blatant generalizations many activists in Quebec make about it. The United States does seem to have the highest sticker price for post secondary education among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Developmentcountries due to greater privatization, but it also maintains higher accessibility than Quebec. In a report by the Education Policy Institute, the United States and Canada are ranked #13 and #11 respectively in education affordability, with Sweden coming in first. However, when countries are then ranked according to educational accessibility; the United States comes in Fourth, ahead of Canada and Sweden (coming in Fifth and Ninth respectively).

So, the fact remains that Quebec spends a disproportionate amount of money on its education system, and yet lags behind in accessibility and in university attendance rates. What would my modest proposal be then? Take education out of the hands of governments, and embrace deregulation. Stop feeding money into the Leviathan and allowing bureaucrats in Quebec’s Ministry of Education to shape the province’s education system. More deregulation would allow different universities to analyze their own needs and charge students what they deem necessary to offer a reputable education. A higher tuition rate, coupled with an efficient redistributive program of loans and financial aid, as found in many Ivy League colleges, would represent a truly more progressive tuition system. This would allow the upper and middle classes to pay a higher sticker price than the rest for their college degree, so that some of the money can be used to fund bursaries and loans for those in financial need. Not everything south of our border is broken, and viable solutions can be found if we combine the best of both worlds. Finally, students cannot expect that their government will continue supporting them. Post secondary education has a value, and in order to retain it, there must be an opportunity cost associated with it.

Murtaza Shambhoora is a U2 Political Science and Economics student. He can be reached at murtaza.shambhoora@mail.mcgill.ca

 


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