Commentary | Education is a right

Last Thursday, people took to the streets of Montreal in protest of five years of tuition hikes planned to start next September. The hike will come to a total of $1,625,  amounting to an increase in base tuition of approximately 75 per cent.

Quebec students are  marching, occupying government offices, and facing tear gas or arrests not because of the extra hundred dollars they may have to begin paying next year, but because the entire conception of an accessible post-secondary university system is being drastically challenged.

Quebec is one of the last strongholds for accessible education in North America, and is the only province with a high rate of university participation and relatively low student debt. The average Quebec student debt is $14,000, while the average Canadian student debt is roughly $25,000.

Further, a rise in tuition fees, even if accompanied by a rise in financial aid, has been shown to deter students from seeking higher education. Evidence suggests that, when tuition is raised, many people are denied post-secondary education. During the mid 1990s, before the tuition freeze was instituted in 1997, undergraduate enrollment decreased by 14.6 per cent. During the ten year freeze, enrollment recovered by 22.1 per cent.

Access to post-secondary education is not a privilege. Education creates informed, engaged citizens and is a public good whose worth cannot be tabulated. It is also an increasingly crucial factor in being able to secure financial prosperity and find employment. According to the 2006 Canadian Census, the average person with a college degree earned $745,000 more throughout their career than someone with a secondary school diploma.  Being unable to afford education, or becoming indebted in order to do so, exacerbates a cycle of privilege and poverty within Canada.

Moreover, tuition increases will further oppress already marginalized groups. Racialized people on average earn lower incomes than non-racialized peoples, and with the burden of tuition hikes proven to be felt the most for low or middle-income families, the fee increases disproportionately affect racial minorities, further perpetuating the institutional racism that is evident when we look at the makeup of university student bodies. According to a Canadian Federation of Students report, tuition fees make up almost 26 per cent of visible minority income while making up only 15 per cent of non visible minority incomes.

If we truly want to create an educational system with significantly reduced systemic barriers, Quebec should look to eliminate tuition fees. The cost of providing free education for Quebec is estimated to be $700 million – while this may be a high price, Quebec seems to have available revenues given that it already has the lowest corporate tax rate in North America. Increasing this tax rate to that of most provinces would provide Quebec the necessary funds to make education free without imposing  hardship on any groups.

The Quebec government fully funds primary and secondary education. This funding should be extended to post-secondary education, given that it is almost a necessity in the current job market and should be a right.

Advocates of tuition hikes say post secondary education is an investment; The Daily agrees, but thinks that students should pay back this investment only through taxes if and  when they earn high paying jobs off the back of their university degrees. So the rich, who pay higher tax rates, would end up paying a larger share of the cost of universities, just as they pay more for hospitals and daycare. This seems fairer to us than charging everyone, rich or poor, the same thousand dollar tuition charge that the poor are less capable of paying.  This is a workable solution: Free education existed in England before September 1998, while maintaining a reputable post secondary education system.

The student movement is not purely self-serving in opposing Quebec’s tuition increases; they are also fighting for future generations and students in other provinces. The movement speaks for students in elementary and secondary school who are heading into a more expensive future, and for provinces like Ontario where tuition has tripled in 20 years. In particular, an increase in Quebec tuition fees would take away the precedent for lower tuition fees in other regions of North America. Quebec students are fighting because free education is a human right, not a commodity.