Tuition fee increases – it’s a subject that raises emotions anywhere in Canada, but no more so than in Quebec, where tuition has been frozen or capped for the past 14 years. That didn’t stop former Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard and a handful of other prominent Quebecers from reigniting the debate last week. In their “pact for the competitive funding of our universities,” they call for increased tuition fees in Quebec and a deregulation of fees that would allow universities to charge higher fees for certain programs like medicine, dentistry and law.
Currently, according to Statistics Canada figures, Quebec residents pay $2,272 per year for an undergraduate education at a Quebec university. The Canadian average is nearly $5,000.
Teacher and student groups in the province denounced the proposals, but many media commentators seemed ready to at least consider the idea. The Globe and Mail did a very handy media roundup of the controversy as it unfolded in the province.
I do think it’s time to revisit the debate. It has been periodically re-examined over the years, but politicians have shown very little appetite to raise fees in the face of fierce student opposition.
Quebec has one of the lowest levels of university participation in the country, so if low tuition fees were meant to encourage participation rates, it doesn’t seem to be working. Many studies indicate that non-financial barriers are far more important in determining whether an individual does or does not choose to attend university. For a subset of individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds, higher tuition fees may indeed be a barrier, but that would be better addressed through targeted, non-repayable grants.
There are many other aspects to this debate, of course, so feel free to weigh in. Let the debate begin.