Recent statements made by McGill’s principal, Heather Munroe-Blum, have reminded us of the administration’s contradictory stance on tuition fees. In the past, Munroe-Blum has expressed a concern for the ability of lower-income students to attend university. However, Munroe-Blum has also repeatedly said that Quebec tuition fees should be “re-regulated” to match the Canadian average. Her stance is that 30 per cent of tuition fee increases could be redirected toward student aid in the form of bursaries to allow underprivileged students to attend university. Munroe-Blum is right to reject the current tuition model as unfair towards lower-income families. However, her proposal that the overarching problem of accessibility can be fixed by increasing student aid to those students who would be most adversely affected by fee hikes doesn’t stand up to the facts.
Providing financial aid to underprivileged students is a short-term solution to a long-term problem, namely the underfunding of the post-secondary education system. Although administrators recognize this problem to be a very important one, the “charity model” they propose to increase students’ contribution to university budgets would increase the overall financial burden on the student population. Research has shown that this would lead to a steep drop in enrolment numbers.
According to Université de Sherbrooke economist Valérie Vierstraete, increases in Quebec tuition fees to just half the average Canadian rate in 2007 would reduce enrolment across Quebec by 6,000 students. Based on this estimate, one out of every twenty Quebec students would no longer be able to afford post-secondary education if the administration had it their way. One can only imagine the increased debt load that those students who could stay on would face after graduating.
Munroe-Blum’s response to the current problem of student debt is that students don’t need free post-secondary education so much as a combination of grants and loans. And while these definitely provide a needed subsidy to students who otherwise would not be able to afford the cost of university, they are subject to periodic cutbacks and as such are not the most viable solution to guaranteeing accessibility. One need only remind readers of the attempt by the Quebec government to convert student bursaries into loans in 2005, sparking massive outcry.
At the turn of the millennium, the Ontario university system enacted a very similar policy to that advocated by Munroe-Blum: tuition fees were increased, and 30 per cent of the margin was earmarked toward financial aid for students. According to a Statistics Canada researcher, the attendance of students whose parents were in both the least educated and the most educated segments of the population more than doubled. However, since the enrolment of students from less advantaged segments of society was small to start with, the actual increase in attendance figures was not very significant for the most underprivileged students.
Granted, this policy allowed a relatively small number of people who otherwise wouldn’t have attended university to do so. However, the tuition increase simply shifted the heaviest financial burden onto lower-middle-class students who could not qualify for student aid. Raising tuition fees while reinvesting some of the funds into student aid only pushes the problem up the social ladder. At any rate, nothing would guarantee that the overall levels of student debt wouldn’t increase.
The ability to attend university must be recognized as a right on par with access to free health care and guaranteed old age pensions. Fighting to get rid of tuition fees is the first step toward ensuring that all persons, regardless of their background, are able to attend university if they wish to. It is imperative that we find practical solutions to the barriers that prevent people from attending university. Many students struggle to support themselves during their studies, and we can help to address this issue by helping to reduce the day-to-day costs of being a student. Low-cost housing, lower public transportation fees, and an on-campus book cooperative would help to ease the burden on students while tuition fees still exist.
And as we strive to guarantee accessibility to post-secondary education, we need to reassess the role of universities within society. Over centuries, universities have provided a valuable space for independent scholarship to come to fruition and eventually reach the broader population. The current administration’s desire for tuition increases would predictably reduce enrolment in universities. As students, we must promote a vision of universities as inclusive institutions whose mission is to work with a large segment of the population in order to raise consciousness and foster social change.