The Great Tuition Debate

The Great Tuition Debate

Quebeckers are going to the polls next Tuesday in what has been a hotly contested and unpredictable election campaign. The debate over tuition fee increases proposed by the provincial government, and the protests they spawned last spring, have come back into the headlines during the campaign.

We spoke to associate professor of political science Éric Bélanger and law professor Daniel Weinstock, BA’83, MA’86, to get their analysis of what the debate has meant for Quebec society, and for the future of higher education in general. They also chimed in on what post-election scenarios might be in the offing.

When the student protests began, many thought they might be short-lived, yet tuition fees remain an issue. Why is this?


Daniel Weinstock: The debate continues because the student spokespeople managed to convince enough of the population that this wasn’t just about tuition. Tuition was the tip of the iceberg, and the iceberg has to do with how we think about a range of important social institutions. Do we want to move toward a model of society where important services are delivered privately, or do we view things like education as public goods which should be financed through taxation rather than individual tuition? The political centre is not holding, and so we are seeing more polarization around such issues. This is our local manifestation of a global phenomenon.

Éric Bélanger: The tuition fee hike was the spark, but the fuel was the population’s increasing dissatisfaction with the Charest government, which has been looking for ways to increase health and education funding without raising income tax and has decided on user fees. Once the students got to the streets, and the government proved to be stubborn in its decisions, then the situation tapped into this general dissatisfaction.

Can we see what ongoing impact this debate might have on higher education?


DW: I think many people fear not just this increase but that increases will become the order of the day on a regular basis, so we’ll be sliding down a slippery slope, until accessibility becomes a real issue. Countries have different ways of funding higher education. Denmark, for instance, has free education and even pays students a stipend, because they are seen as workers training to enter the work force. That system is supported by a much more progressive taxation scheme than we have, and also places much greater obligations on students to maintain certain results. There are many models we could discuss to see which might best suit Quebec, although we also require the political will to implement the best model, and that has been a problem in the past.

EB: University funding is an ongoing issue in Quebec. One problem is that while protesters know what they don’t want, they are less clear about what they do want. What are they proposing as an alternative solution to the problem, in Quebec and elsewhere, of public services costs increasing while the population is getting older? Who will pay for these rising costs? If we are not going to pay more, how are we going to cope with the rising costs of our higher education system? The people at the forefront of the movement have no answer.

The funding of higher education is on political agenda now – what can we expect after the election?


DW: If the Liberals are re-elected we haven’t heard the end of this. Tuition fees aren’t a core issue for the Parti Québécois, but they have propelled themselves to where they are now by supporting students, so they won’t be able to put the issue aside. We’ll still be talking about tuition fees after the election.

EB: Charest has painted himself into a corner, so I don’t see him going back. We’ll see more unrest to come if the Liberals stay in power. If the Parti Québécois comes to power, they may rethink the whole issue of higher education, including the financing of the system, which would lead to a different type of solution.

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