Don’t Kid Yourself: We all pay for the defunding of higher education

I went to McGill in the late 80s and early 90s when tuition fees were less than $1,200 a year, so with summer jobs and some parental help I graduated from my first degree debt-free. For my MA, which I took in Ontario, I worked part-time and graduated after one year with a debt of $10,000.

By way of comparison: my partner went to university in Ontario after grants were eliminated, and when the first round of tuition fee hikes were implemented. He completed a BA and then an MA, and graduated with a debt load (and compound interest) requiring monthly payments of close to $650 for 10 years.

We know we benefited, and are benefiting from, our education. Both of us have found employment that allows us to make use of what we studied, and each of us paid back our loans. But that debt (particularly my partner’s), until it was fully repaid, impacted every major decision we made as a couple and then later as a family. And we still live with those decisions: when we bought a house, when we had kids, how many kids we could afford to have, the fact that we don’t own a car, how often we see our families who live out of town. (The other determining factor is the high cost of child care outside of Quebec.)

“Have you set up RESPs yet?” we’re often asked. Are you kidding—with both kids still in child care? And since we have fundamental issues with the RESP system, the public money it represents and how, like the RRSP system, it’s geared to the wealthiest families who can most afford to save, we’ll be exploring other ways—once child care expenses go down—to save for our kids’ education so that they can start their adulthood as debt-free as possible.

Of course, if our house needs major repairs it promises to throw a huge wrench into “the plan”. Because for many of us, life is as precariously balanced as a three-legged stool: alter one element (like when I broke my leg last year, rendering me immobile for several weeks) and the whole thing threatens to topple.

Our societies are likewise delicately balanced: educated societies are healthy societies; equitable societies are safer societies. There is no one panacea—these elements work together. And they need to work well together—which requires accountability, sufficient financing, transparency, and effective administration. So the question is not “health care or education, what’s it going to be?”; the question is, what do we need in order to create an equitable, healthy, educated and engaged society, and what’s the best, fairest, most efficient way to get it?

It is within this context that we need to examine the rhetorical criticisms levied against the Quebec student strike and the people involved.

Tuition fees in Quebec are the lowest in the country. What have they got to complain about?

It’s less surprising that Quebec students are protesting than it is that students in other provinces aren’t. Perhaps if there had been sustained mass uprisings in other provinces fees wouldn’t be $6,600 in Ontario, or an average of about $5,500 in the rest of Canada. Maybe then we’d have more middle-income families able to avoid the “do we retire, or take out another mortgage on the house, or watch our kid graduate with upwards of $30,000 in debt” conversation taking place in many Ontario households.

We also need to question the whole “you’ve got it less bad than others, so stop whining” argument that’s used to marginalize anyone fighting for improvements. After Quebec, who’s next? Newfoundland-Labrador’s fees are the next cheapest (and not by much, thanks to a 25% rollback and freeze a few years ago that has according to the Canadian Federation of Students resulted in a 5% increase in participation rates)—do we turn our jealousy on them? Then Manitoba? Until we’re all equally indebted? How is that a solution?

Okay, fine. They want a tuition freeze. Where are they going to find the money? Or what are they going to give up to get it?

Think back to that three-legged stool. Educated societies are healthier. More equitable societies are safer. These things work together to create a better standard of living for all of us. Rather than kicking out one leg of the stool to “afford” the other two, perhaps we should focus on the real threat that is crushing the stool itself (and no, it ain’t socialism!)–government decisions that lead to the consistent underfunding of public social infrastructure.

But while we’re on the subject of “finding” money to pay for Quebec’s social programs, let’s take a look at provincial funding for private schools: $437 million in 2006-07. That’s money being used to “support” middle-income families who want to access education as a private good, rather than putting that money towards ensuring public schools better serve the needs of all kids. It would pay for a fee freeze at Quebec universities and have money left over for bursaries for low-income students. Or the remainder could be redirected towards public schools. But it does demonstrate that when public money is used to facilitate private access, it’s the public infrastructure and the people accessing it who pay the price.

Why are they inconveniencing my life because of their issues?

The point of a strike is to disrupt—to draw attention to what is going on, and to create public momentum in calling for alternatives. It makes little sense to protest in the middle of nowhere so as not to interrupt day-to-day activity merely to be “polite”. When workers strike one goal is to demonstrate how much the public needs their service and why they should be adequately compensated for their work. When students strike their goal is more nuanced–these are community members and future workers upon whose labour, skills and knowledge we will increasingly depend.

But more broadly: you think you’re inconvenienced because your shopping trip is delayed or because you’re held up in traffic? Just wait for the “inconvenience” society will have to deal with because government policies and priorities are creating an underclass of educated youth with fewer job prospects who are tired of elected representatives paying their concerns lip service at best. Dealing with those ramifications will be far more expensive and inconvenient for all of us.

Why you do they think they’re entitled to something better than what I got?

This argument is particularly frustrating when it’s voiced by those (yes, even in Quebec) who paid tuition fees a fraction of today’s, who graduated and sailed into their first job (or were even hired right out of high school because a degree was not yet a job requirement) before wages stagnated and when household debt was not at 150%. They may have had debt, but it was nowhere near what we’re currently seeing. And it could be paid off in a fraction of the time it takes today’s graduates to extricate themselves from the weight of student loans (after years of waiting tables). But it seems healthy pay cheques and years of upward social mobility have also bought some convenient amnesia.

And even if the previous generation had it hard too: why blame Quebec students for fighting for a better situation for themselves and those who come after them? If the standards we set are based on how hard we had it, and anyone who follows should have it at least as hard, what does this say for social progress? Social programs were created because people wanted something better for their children and grandchildren than they themselves had—a decent standard of living, accessible education, health care, financial assistance if they lose their job, and the ability to retire with dignity and some financial security.

As for the “entitled” question: these young people are risking their semester; in the case of students in their final year of study, they’re risking it on behalf of future students. Those students, professors, and family members: they’re protesting for other people’s kids, for the communities we all live in, for people who are not well-served by political decisions that overwhelmingly privilege a wealthy minority. So here’s my question: How difficult do you want their lives to be, before you can feel vindication for the challenges you faced?

Why are they refusing to pay their “fair share”?

What, exactly, is “fair”? Is it as much as you can afford? Is it a percentage of your family income? Is it based on the salary you’re likely to earn when you graduate? Is it based on what the government says it can “afford”? Or on what the rest of the public stands to gain from an educated society?

Some say that because it is “unfair” to subsidize fees for rich and poor alike, we should fully deregulate tuition fees to make the rich pay more, and gear bursaries to low income students.

Well, of course it’s unfair for the poor to have to pay the same amount as the wealthy. User fees are inherently unfair. We should absolutely pay what we can afford—for higher education, and health care, and public infrastructure, and a social safety net that is there for all of us when we need it. Now, if only there was some national mechanism in place where we could calculate the amount we owe based on our incomes to pay for these programs that are vital to a well-functioning, equitable, healthy, educated society. Perhaps we could record it all in a single form, and set aside a day each year to do this, to make it more coordinated and efficient. I suggest April 30th.

Because as we know, the most effective, efficient, fair and accountable way to pay for these programs is through a progressive tax system. So while I recognize the need to keep tuition fees affordable, and the importance of a national grants system like the rest of the industrialized world enjoys, it’s a stop-gap measure. If we are truly committed to fairness, the goal must be—in the interests of economic efficiency and social justice, but also in recognition of the importance of a highly educated society—fully public (not to be confused with “free”) higher education.

Why should I pay for their education?

These are the kids who will be your doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, social workers, health care workers, dentists, architects, librarians….do you get the picture? Even though I have no intention of going to med school, I sure hope the person performing any surgery on me did. And it would be nice to know that the teacher at the front of my kid’s class isn’t exhausted because they’ve been working a second job waiting tables to pay off their student debt. We depend on their work, professionalism, and what they bring to our communities to enrich us all.

Of course, there are “return on investment” arguments: increased incomes earned by those with degrees mean more taxes paid into the system, more disposable income etc. But there are other arguments which are even more substantial: improved health, greater civic engagement and community involvement, more social mobility and increased electoral participation. In other words, societies with better access to education tend to be healthier, more cohesive, more tolerant and more equitable places to live, work, and raise families.

Which means it comes down to this: we’re not paying for “their” education. All of us, including those students in the streets, are paying for the right to live in an educated society. With all of the vast benefits that brings.


  1. Wow! This is the best English article I’ve read so far on the subject! Very well written! I only wish this was written before to share these facts and opinions with English-speaking people. Explains very well why we are doing this and why it is essential to promote an educated society. Thank you a lot for writing this!

    I am myself finishing my PhD this year, so I won’t be affected at all by the tuition raise. I am not doing this for myself, to avoid spending too much money or to avoid having too much debts. I have already too much debts anyway. I am doing this for future students that will not be able to attend university (a study from the ministry of education proves that at least 7000 students won’t be able to attend university after the tuition raise), and for all those who will be able to afford university but that will come out of it critically indebted.

  2. Thank God for that article! Most of the English-language articles pertaining to the Quebec tuition crisis have been pro-hike or, at least, anti-strike.

    A shame all the other good anti-hike articles are in French; most anti-hike articles I found in English aren’t as good and/or talk about the issue of tuition hikes from an American perspective, where student debt issues usually come first and tuition freeze/reduction as just one solution.

  3. First, sorry for my basic english.
    I would just add one thing on this oustanding and clear essay. Low tuition fees are the fundamental base of the liberty of people. As you said, the more a society is educated, the more it gets involved in public affairs. Once this said you need to add that without it, people can’t choose what they really want in life in the vast possibilities of jobs. You can’t achieve your own potential. This isn’t just a basic equality matter but one of liberty too. Without low tuition fees, you can only choose what you’re gonna do with your life that you can afford. Leaving to the rich minority the rest of the higher educated jobs, perpetuating an elite base on how rich you family was when you were born.

    I am currently in my 6th year of a 4 year Honours program at the University of Waterloo (and believe me, there are a couple years left). I’m a mature student, and mother of three who can’t get OSAP (and therefore don’t qualify for any other funds to help subsidize the cost). The issue of the cost of education strikes a pretty strong chord with me. I believe strongly that everyone (but absolutely critically parents) should have access to affordable education (we are, after all educating children). Investing in education builds stronger communities, and better lives for people on every level, yet it’s becoming more and more unobtainable with rising fees. Why aren’t we all up in arms about this?

  5. While your post is well written and less crazed than most things that have been written about the strike (both for and against), it is just as one-sided as everything else.

    The biggest problem I see is that you do not give enough facts to back up your arguments. For example: How does the average debt in Quebec compare to the rest of Canada?

    You seem to be using your and your husband’s situation as justification for the entire student body of Quebec. My partner and I both finished degrees in Ontario during the 2000s and we both finished with *no* debt. Why could it not be that way in Quebec instead?

    You are simply using a bunch of hypothetical situations to justify your points. If we keep pumping students into the university system we will suddenly produce this healthy, Utopian society. It will just *happen*. If we raise tuition the other provinces will suddenly come under attack. These kinds of exaggerated claims will get you lots of pats on the back (as evidenced by the comments), but they contribute nothing concrete to the debate.

    To use your stool analogy, we are not kicking out one of the legs, we are making it the same length as all the others so that the whole thing does not wobble.

  6. Your husbands debt from higher education in Ontario required a repayment of $78,000 (interest and principle)? Tuition in Ontario at this point was roughly 1600/year, lets put living expenses at another $2500 (generously), was he in school for 40 years?

    You say you paid the same amount of tuition in the 80’s that Quebec students pay today…do you understand the concept of inflation, which means that every year students since you had a cut in tuition? The rate you paid in the 1980’s is equivalent to $2625 (use Canada’s CPI calculator)…not far below the amount the Quebec government is currently proposing.

    1. I’ve compiled my responses to the previous two posts in this one.

      While I’m not using my personal situation as justification, I am using it by way of context (and apparently one that resonates with a number of people) to help explain the ways in which different policy decisions impact families where debt and access is concerned (even long after graduation). As for comparisons–student debt is estimated at approximately $10,000 less on average in Quebec than the average for the rest of the country. With regard to “pumping students into the university system”–Quebec has a publicly-funded CEGEP system that allows students to pursue different educational options at different times in their lives, and other provinces have colleges. Obviously we should ensure that there are a range of different options for students to pursue post-high school. But in order for them to be accessed, they need to be affordable, and for an increasing number of people that’s becoming more and more difficult. Which benefits no one, particularly when opportunities for those who do not have some form of higher education are abysmally inadequate.

      There is substantial analysis from several jurisdictions and for a number of different age cohorts that points clearly to those not-at-all-hypothetical “claims” about the social returns of higher education. I’ve linked to some of it in this post, but there’s lots of additional research. And as for refuting the slippery slope argument about tuition fees, recall that one of the rationalizations used as to why Quebec’s fees should be raised is precisely because they are currently so much lower than the Canadian average (the “if no one else has it that good, why should they?” argument). Which is a nice segue into the suggestion that this is merely “evening out” the legs of the stool. Cutting each one shorter and shorter to make things “the same” is not a solution…though I’m curious about this growing belief that equalization is laudable–so long as we equalize downward.

      My partner was in university for six and a half years (not the 40 that’s been estimated above), and as he had very little financial means outside of the loans system he received maximum assistance which resulted in the monthly payments I indicated. Further, at that point the interest charged on several of those loans (because federal and provincial were calculated separately from year to year) was over 9%. But several other assumptions are flawed: tuition fees in Ontario in 1993 were $2,500, over $3,200 in 1997 (for grad school they were more, although because he was post-residence he paid slightly less than students on location), and continued to increase every year until they were frozen (temporarily) by McGuinty. Calculations of living expenses for $2,500 a year–about $200 a month–are awfully optimistic (I’m assuming they don’t include additional compulsory fees, residence, books, labs, insurance, travel etc) and bring up that old conundrum of having to choose between rent or food that I would like to think we recognize is no way to live (although a reality for far too many).

      And yes, in addition to the concept of inflation, I’m also aware that over the past 20 years minimum wages in Quebec (and other provinces) have not kept pace with inflation (in other words, students would have to work more hours to pay for tuition fees). For the majority of us wages have been stagnant for the past two decades and for the poorest among us they have actually declined. Other basic expenses have also outpaced inflation. But more to the point: I’m curious why we should limit ourselves to the “at least we’re no worse off than we were 20 years ago” argument rather than actually trying to improve prospects and opportunities for all of us, particularly young people.

      Thanks for your comments.

  7. Hi Erika,

    Your article is very thought-provoking and opens up a deeper discussion on the issues with society. Thank you for posting it!

    Here are my two cents!

    I believe that attention needs to be received by those that have the power to change the processes, the system, the world we live in and our future. I believe we need to emphasize the wholeness of education as it touches all aspects of our being, our society, our relationship with each other, and our environment. I believe we need to evolve to a world where no one gets left behind and build a world where education is used as a benefit to all..not as a mechanism to dig deeper class systems, or used like a competitive sport to establish a winner and looser, or as a machinery to keep the assembly lines of economic production in motion.

    All the Best


  8. What if 90% of students wanted to get degrees in interpretive dance? Would you have the same opinion?

    Would the person who didn’t go to University still feel good about paying for other people’s tuition while he works?

  9. I had the benefits of Quebec government support for private school in Montreal as well as generous support from McGill and Quebec while at McGill. I doubt I would have had the benefit of a private education for three years without Quebec’s support. My parents, certainly, could not have paid the costs. I had to get through a bunch of exams at weekends to win the private school support and it wasn’t easy to get or to keep. I was very lucky. I would hate to think that others would have massive debt forever when an education is probably the reason I have had so many opportunities in my life.

  10. Neither an accurate nor complete picture of the situation. You miss out details about the significant tax breaks full time students receive. Me, I have over $25,000 in tuition I can still claim on future taxes and not including the interest I will pay.

    Also, a full time student single mother would also be entitled to provincial and federal benefits which you forget to mention. And in Quebec, such a person would have access to cheap daycare or subsidized after school programs for children. Not suggesting a student in such a situation would have it easy but let’s give a fuller account of the facts. I know it’s not easy because I have colleagues in this situation.

    One of the most disturbing suggestions made in the counter proposal of student organizations (led by mostly undergraduate leaders) would be cuts to provincial research funding, i.e. Quebec’s unique FQRSC programs for graduate research funding. This money is paid to students either as fellowships and / or research assistantship wages. RAships are very good experience and can lead to additional publications. Who are the typical single mothers and low income parents at Quebec universities? Graduate students. Who are the TAs and sessional instructors at universities? Graduate students. If we cut a university to the bone then it might be best to just cut right through.

    On a personal note, I am a full time graduate student and have two kids. Over past 16 years I have saved over $64,0000 for their university educations and this does not include the additional $12,800 ($400 per child x 2 x 16 years) in Canadian Education Savings Grants the federal government kicked in (but does not include a smaller grant the Quebec government contributes).

    So let’s try to be a bit more honest about the apparently hideous corporate neo-liberal state does and does not do for us.

    Based on my experiences with my single life colleagues and observed of their spending habits, what they spend on dinners, alcohol and parties each month equals what I save every month for my children. If you think being a student is tough, trying doing it with two kids.

    I guess we are at war. Because the first casualty of any war is the truth. And the executions based on trumped up charges for treason start on both sides.

    Me, I support the tuition hikes. Because a reasonable tuition hike makes good economic and policy sense. $1,625 x 30,000 students (the majority of whom are from upper middle class families can afford to pay) = $48 million in additional revenues. Makes sense to me to give a pay raise to the graduate students who keep the Quebec universities going for so cheap and the knowledge base current.

    Rodger Dodger

    1. There are a few things in one of the previous posts that should be directly addressed. RESPs, for example: the vast majority of the benefits–and by this I mean the substantial sums of public money through the CESG and other programs–go towards the families who can most afford to save (overwhelmingly upper-middle class and the wealthiest). Further, were that public money applied directly to the collective costs of higher education, it would actually result in significant across the board reductions in fees for all students (not just those who benefit from a savings plan skewed in favour of the wealthiest). I’m including in this public amount the “incentive” funds targeted to lower-income Canadians–which is rooted in the misconception that the only reason they haven’t been socking away funds in RESPs is simply because they couldn’t get their act together–as opposed to the fact that they, like many Canadians, are already drowning in debt trying to afford the essentials.

      Yes, there are some modest tax breaks for education bills which can be realized by those who make enough money to actually claim them. Because of this, they do very little for those who need assistance the most. Why not just tackle the high cost of fees upfront by reducing or even eliminating them instead of pretending that tax breaks after the fact somehow make up for individualizing the costs of higher education?

      I agree with you that TAs and RAs should receive better compensation for the work they do–unfortunately, their inadequate pay, as well as the increasing tendency for universities to rely on sessionals and a casualized workforce is yet another way universities are cutting educational costs to the detriment of educational quality. This is not a comment on the quality of the TAs, RAs and sessionals–but being forced to work harder for inadequate pay and benefits with less supports puts them in a tremendously insecure position while they themselves are continuing their studies.

      I also agree with you about the importance of the Quebec child care system as I indicated early on in my post. But to suggest that it makes up for the increasing cost of higher education is a hugely optimistic claim. It is a support, and an incredibly important one. But as i mentioned, it has to work in conjunction with a number of other social programs that ensure increasing–not decreasing–equality. And accessible education at all levels is a key one.

      The suggestion that most kids are upper-middle class and can afford to pay the hikes ignores two things: 1) the number of students who come from low income families and live in poverty throughout their education and 2) that we need to ensure that education is more, not less, affordable precisely so that access isn’t driven by income.

      Thank you for your comments.

  11. Mostly I don’t get the Albertans. Norway has a heritage of $300 billion. Alberta has about $8 billion. Alberta should have the best health care, the best public schools, free tuition and the best public transit around. Instead, they have none of the above and no one there seems to care. I don’t get it.

  12. While I certainly support any student’s right to strike over increasing tuition fees (having gone through 8 years of post secondary, I wish they had been lower!) I also would like to bring up something I saw in my professional program during the McGuinty tuition freeze. The sad truth is that when universities are told to pay more out of pocket (and lets admit, it’ll either be the taxpayer short-term until the next government repeals that tax, or the universities themselves) they cut out programs integral to the integrity of the education quality. For instance, I saw an on-campus accessible library absolutely disappear. I saw less TA’s and paid positions, less people to ask of help. There were fewer office hours for profs, and more profs that didn’t really want to be teaching. Hell, Laurier almost went bankrupt! The adjunt professor positions, those just out of a PhD or fellowship, dried up. Ultimately, it will be the quality of education that suffers when the bill comes to be paid.

    1. A most excellent point, Kevin. Our Canadian universities are increasingly underfunded as the public investment in them (eg. for capital expenditures and in deferred maintenance) is increasingly inadequate. However, downloading the responsibility for the shortfall onto students and their families is not a solution–it only exacerbates the inequality of access that already exists. And it is the replacing of public financing with private contributions (specifically but not solely tuition fees) that allowed an administrator from York University to several years ago refer to that institution as a “private, charitable organization that receives some public support.” Sadly, for universities in provinces that have reinforced this downloading onto students and their families, that’s an increasingly accurate statement.

  13. Highest taxes in Canada, underfunded universities, health care in dire straits. This is Quebec. No sympathy for the students striking. They are lucky to have even gotten the deal offered to them that would have kept their tuition incredibly low.

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