By Nadia Hausfather
The two-day summit on higher education will end today, and yet even before it started, it appeared the governing Parti Québécois had already decided on the outcome.
In recent weeks we witnessed a strange ballet. While higher-education minister Pierre Duchesne said free university education would not be discussed because it is a long-term “ideal,” not “possible” in the short term, Premier Pauline Marois pretended all possibilities would be explored; all along, though, the government was clearly aiming for indexation.
The Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) of Concordia University agrees with Duchesne (and the Liberal Party of the 1960s, which promised it) that free education is the ideal — but we think we should start working toward this goal now. We will be participating in this afternoon’s student demonstration to make that clear.
Is free university education fiscally feasible? Studies such as the those undertaken by l’Institut de recherche et d’informations socio-économiques (IRIS) suggest that free tuition would increase government spending by less than one per cent of the provincial budget, or around $670 million. Several proposals have already been put on the table by different groups to find off-setting government revenue, such as cracking down on fiscal fraud ($1.4 billion), restoring the capital tax on financial institutions ($800 million) and/or increasing the taxable portion of businesses’ capital gains ($470 million). These proposed solutions remind us that free education is a matter of political will, rather than fiscal feasibility.
So if free education is feasible, the question becomes: Why should we embrace it?
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, ratified by Canada, stipulates in Article 13, Paragraph c: “Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education.” This is definitely not the case here in Canada: An IRIS study shows that in 1995, the university-participation rate of students from families with annual incomes of $25,000 or less was 30 per cent, while six years after tuition hikes, it fell to 20 per cent. Statistics Canada confirms this trend.
The plight of international students is an alarming example of the deleterious effects of ever-increasing tuition fees. The Canadian Bureau for International Education reports that at least 40 per cent of international students have difficulty paying for tuition, housing, food and transportation. In Quebec, difficulties are compounded by the fact that the provincial government allows universities to increase their tuition by 10 per cent every year; and for undergraduate international tuition in certain areas of study (mathematics, engineering, among others), they can increase it even further, up to any amount, at any time. Some students have to return home because of the increases; others have to work late hours to make up the difference and end up falling asleep in class.
The GSA asks for the withdrawal of policies that permit such unexpected increases to international tuition, followed by a gradual move toward free education for international students, too. Norway and most federated states in Germany do not charge tuition, either for local or foreign students – and they are not the only ones. Let’s stop using the United States as basis for comparison. Student debt levels there have soared past credit-card debt.
It is in this context that the GSA supports free education for all. It is imperative that a person’s socio-economic background never be an obstacle to a university degree. Once we can agree upon this basic principle, then we can move on and open up interesting debates about quality, governance, and the contribution of universities to our society.
Nadia Hausfather is vice-president (external) of the Graduate Students’ Assocation of Concordia University.