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Higher education: “Free” tuition would cost $1.3 billion

Montreal, August 16, 2018 – The idea of making higher education “free” resurfaces regularly, echoing among representatives of several political parties. A publication launched today by the MEI shows that such a policy would be costly for Quebec taxpayers, without necessarily leading to more students graduating.

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.

“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 from the service. Already, students’ financial contribution in the form of tuition fees and related costs represents just 16% of the revenues of Quebec universities,” explains Alexandre Moreau, author of the publication.

“Moreover, this would not necessarily improve the accessibility of higher education, contrary to a widespread myth. Students’ decision to attend an establishment of higher learning depends above all on their aptitudes, their interests, and their family and social environments,” adds Mr. Moreau.

These and other factors explain practically all of the gap between the enrolment rates of students from less privileged backgrounds and those from families that are better-off. Financial constraints explain just 12% of this gap.

“Quebec has another problem: We have many students, but not so many graduates. The university enrolment rate is high, but so is the higher education dropout rate. Making higher learning ‘free’ will not resolve this problem,” points out Mr. Moreau.

Indeed, 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% versus 57%), even if its tuition and related costs are more than twice as high.

“In addition to being expensive and ineffective, 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,” concludes Alexandre Moreau.

The Viewpoint entitled “Higher Education: The True Cost of ‘Free’ Tuition” was prepared by Alexandre Moreau, Public Policy Analyst at the MEI, in collaboration with Miguel Ouellette, Researcher at the MEI. This publication is available on our website.

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The MEI is an independent public policy think tank. Through its publications and media appearances, the MEI stimulates debate on public policies in Quebec and across Canada by proposing reforms based on market principles and entrepreneurship.


Interview requests: Daniel Dufort, Director, External Relations, MEI. Tel.: 514-273-0969 ext. 2224 / Cell: 438-886-9919/ E-mail: ddufort@iedm.org

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