Commentary | Quebec should keep its hands off student money

Quebec finance minister Raymond Bachand announced Monday that the government will raise university tuition in 2012. “Obviously the students are not doing their fair share now,” Bachand said.

To students already in deep debt or paying loans, to students eating up their parents’ or their own savings, this attitude is patently offensive. The amount tuition will climb by is yet to be determined – but judging from reports released by the Quebec Ministry of Education in 2007, it’s likely that we’re not talking about the baby-step increases we’ve seen in the past. It’s clear that the Liberal Party of Quebec’s interpretation of “students’ fair share” means shouldering the burden of sustaining the province’s education system – a move that would make the university system increasingly less accessible to students who merit a university education but don’t have the funds to pay. These planned hikes, however large they may be, must immediately be met with organized student action.

It is neither feasible nor fair to expect the funding to come from international, out of province, and Quebec students. They are simply unable to provide it. Students should not be expected to pay for their education before they’ve even entered the workforce. This plan would shift the burden of Quebec’s higher educational system away from those who have benefited most from it – the educated upper class, who are more than capable of providing for its cost. It would also discourage students from pursuing careers whose true value is not reflected in their level of remuneration, like teaching and social work.

Access to post-secondary education is only fair when it is based on desire to learn and not ability to pay. Equal opportunity is integral to a just society, and equal access to education is a key factor in creating a society where everyone has the potential to pursue the vocation they choose.

Post-secondary education is more than a means for students from wealthy backgrounds to achieve higher income and more than an opportunity for the intellectually curious to achieve fulfilment. It helps mitigate the structural inequalities faced by underprivileged groups.

Moreover, post-secondary education is a public good: it broadens the wealth of accessible knowledge and spurs the advance of science, technology, and the humanities.

Quebec has historically had a tradition of affordable education, a position broadly supported by the public. Under the Parti Québécois-enacted 13-year tuition freeze, Quebec’s tuition remained the lowest in Canada. But the proposed fee increases would greatly compromise equality of opportunity in the province. Students from all financial backgrounds will be affected, but among the hardest hit will be those who already barely manage to pay their own way through school, and those lower middle-class persons who are not eligible for aid.

Raising tuition is not an acceptable solution to Quebec university underfunding and provincial debt. We recognize that these are real problems – UQAM’s portion of the educational deficit amounts to a staggering $565 million while the province is buried under $160 billion of debt.

And student protests against tuition hikes internationally, from California to Germany, show that Quebec students aren’t alone. A large-scale, organized student movement composed of students, faculty, and staff crystallized quickly this fall in California. Meanwhile, ongoing waves of protests in cities all across Germany have made real gains in influencing their federal government’s agenda on education, even though the current government is one of the most conservative configurations in recent years.

The Quebec student movement also needs to come out in force. We urge all students to attend the protest against the privatization of public fees starting at Philips Square (in front of the Bay) today (April 1) at 1 p.m. Approach your professors, TAs, and all other staff members and convince them to attend; everyone will be affected, and everyone must be mobilized. Quebec students and university staff must send a clear message to the Liberal government: Quebec cannot balance its books on the backs of students.