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Margin Notes

Reopening the Quebec tuition debate

It was never really closed, but Lucien Bouchard has reignited the discussion of the province's low-tuition-fee policy.


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.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Bruno Charbonneau / March 4, 2010 at 17:45

    The problem with this “debate” is that there isn’t much debate in the first place. The “debate” is framed in simplistic fiscal and thus technical terms. The problem is unsophisticatedly identified as one of funding, thus implicitly suggesting a program of action, i.e. raising tuition fees. No one seems willing to engage in the larger and the implicit underlying debate about the place of higher education in our society, about what purposes higher education serves or should serve, about who and what benefits from such education, etc. If the assumptions are that it is a fiscal problem and that students are “clients” who “buy” diplomas, the solution suggests itself before the debate has begun. This seems largely to be what students association are trying to do: to reorient the debate toward the social value and place of higher education in Quebec society. So far, not many people seem to be listening.

  2. Leo Charbonneau / March 5, 2010 at 12:10

    I think Bruno Charbonneau makes a very valid point. There is clearly an important social value to higher education. But there is a private benefit of higher education to the individual as well. Are these benefits roughly of equal value, a fifty-fifty proposition? I don’t know, but undergraduate students in Quebec pay only about $1 out of every $5 of the cost of university.

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