En collaboration avec Miguel Ouellette*
In the coming election campaign, the misguided notion of making higher education “free” in Quebec seems certain to rear its ugly head. While this idea may seem attractive at first glance, such a policy would be costly for Quebec taxpayers, would not necessarily lead to more students graduating and would also be unfair.
The very concept of “free” tuition is misleading; what this really means is making taxpayers finance higher education, rather than the students who benefit directly. Already, students’ financial contribution in the form of tuition fees and related costs, which for Quebec students amounts to a little more than $3,700 per student per year of university, represents just 16 per cent of the revenues of Quebec universities.
Nonetheless, the abolition of university and college tuition fees and related costs would mean an extra $1.1 billion a year if applied solely to Quebec students, and $1.3 billion if extended to Canadian and foreign students, supposing that the number of students remained constant. Did somebody say “free”?
The central argument invoked by those who favour this policy is that it would considerably improve accessibility to higher education. This is a myth.
Students’ decision to attend an establishment of higher learning depends above all on their aptitudes, interests, and family and social environments. Financial constraints explain just 12 per cent of the gap between the enrolment rates of students from less privileged backgrounds and those from families that are better-off.
Moreover, while the accessibility of higher education is important in itself, the decisive element in the analysis of educational policies remains graduation rates. These do not demonstrate a link between the cost to students and accessibility of higher education. Quebec is, after Newfoundland and Labrador, the province where tuition fees and related costs are the lowest, yet the percentage of individuals aged 25 to 34 who have a university degree is well below the Canadian average. In comparison, Ontario has proportionally more graduates than Quebec in this age bracket (68 per cent versus 57 per cent), despite tuition and related costs that are more than twice as high.
Quebec achieves good results when it comes to university attendance, but the dropout rate remains high; in other words, we have many students, but not so many graduates. Making higher learning “free” will not resolve this problem.
Moreover, the student is the main beneficiary of his or her studies. In Quebec, the median income of university graduates is around $79,000 a year, versus $42,000 for those with a high school diploma, and a little over $56,000 for workers with a CEGEP diploma. How could the government justify taking even more money from the 71 per cent of Quebecers who do not have a university degree in order to pay a larger share of the total cost of the studies of those who will out-earn them in the future?
Finally, one of the most significant arguments against the implementation of superficially free tuition is that the studies of less fortunate students are already financed by government: An undergraduate student whose parents earn less than $50,000 will receive $6,200 in financial assistance, including $3,650 of bursaries. Such a student will be able to pay nearly the entirety of his or her tuition fees and related costs just with these bursaries.
Education is not free. The government devotes billions of dollars to it each year, ultimately paid for by taxpayers. In addition to being expensive, ineffective and unfair, the abolition of the various fees and costs that students must cover themselves would send the wrong message regarding the cost and value of higher education in a province that already undervalues it.
If fairness and the proper valuation of these studies is the goal, a better policy would be the adjustment of tuition fees as a function of the cost of different programs, accompanied by a corresponding adjustment in financial aid for students who need it.
Alexandre Moreau est analyste en politiques publiques à l'Institut économique de Montréal, Miguel Ouellette est chercheur à l'IEDM. Ils sont les auteurs de « Éducation supérieure : le vrai coût de la "gratuité" » et signent ce texte à titre personnel.