Queen’s Journal: Student strikes raise concerns (28 May 2012)

By Isabelle Duchaine.  As published in the Queen’s Journal, 28 May 2012.  

Rising tuition costs across the country need to be evaluated to ensure quality education

For over 100 days, students in Quebec have been marching, chanting and boycotting classes in protest of a $1,625 tuition increase spread over five years.

Student protesters have led peaceful demonstrations with thought-provoking and clearly-articulated talking points; they’ve also rioted, broken windows and tossed smoke bombs into subway systems.

National and international media have been recycling and recreating exciting names for the movement. From the Toronto Star it is the ‘Student Uprising’, at Maclean’s it is the ‘Maple Spring’.

There’s no question that post-secondary education for Quebec students is cheap — it’s one of the least expensive options in North America.

Today, Quebec’s average undergraduate tuition is $2,519 per year, in comparison Ontario’s average is $6,640.

Quebec’s perspective on tuition cannot be isolated from its social and historical roots. The unique socio-economic position of Quebec requires a nuanced understanding of a culture with a long standing, powerful youth and union movement as well as a philosophical alignment with more socialist education policies of France, Germany and Sweden.

The leaders of the largest student groups say that ideally, tuition in Quebec will reach the level promised during the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s — free.

Despite cries of “Solidarity!”, student strikes remain incredibly divisive within their own communities. The discounted rates are not universal; only eligible to students born in Quebec or educated through their secondary school system receive lower tuition.

About 30 per cent of Quebec students are striking; the rest have spent the past few months attending class, writing exams and strolling through campuses filled with pamphlets, protesters and riot police. The past few weeks have seen a transformation of the protests into a wider social movement, drawing upon longstanding social, political and economic concerns.

So what does this mean for us at Queen’s?

The reality is that tuition in Ontario has increased every year for the past five years and our tuition due on Sept. 1 will be increasing yet again. The Ontario government has extended the current tuition framework allowing schools to increase their tuition by an institutional maximum of five per cent. Some programs, such as Commerce, have increased by eight per cent.

Since 2009, Ontario has held the dubious distinction of having the most expensive average tuition. Continually increasing tuition without developing metrics that guarantee quality is detrimental to the value of a post-secondary experience.

The governments of Ontario and Quebec argue that the current system is unsustainably expensive. New technology, new departments, new building projects, increased student support services, pension agreements and a booming number of students have led the costs associated with an undergraduate education to skyrocket in the past 30 years.

The rationale behind tuition increases remains that Ontario is currently experiencing concern over provincial debt.

However, students remain highly sensitive to economic flux; unemployment among high-school students, post-secondary students and recent graduates remain incredibly high.

The governments can’t deny affordable access to all students in a world which increasingly requires the technical and intellectual sophistication of a post-secondary education.

Reasonable increases in tuition, as measured using inflation should be allowed to ensure quality, but the Ontario government must recognize that students are currently graduating with more debt and fewer employment prospects than our predecessors.

Both the government and broader society reap the rewards of our post-secondary learning; Ontarians with degrees are more likely to live longer, be healthier, commit fewer crimes, vote in larger numbers, volunteer in their community and donate to charity.

There is a financial imperative to investing in post-secondary education, according to the Canadian Chamber of Commerce ‘the 27 per cent of Ontarians with post-secondary education credentials contribute 50 per cent of the income tax.’

A cost-sharing model, one which equitably divides the contributions of the government and students can deliver affordable, quality education.

The AMS currently advocates a 70 per cent government, 30 per cent student split based on the average contributions of governments across Canada. Presently, the Ontario split is 55 per cent government, 45 per cent student.

Giant placards announcing “Hey! The complicated mélange of global financial concerns, conflicting institutional perspectives and stagnant funding formulas have led my University and Government to increasingly look at my fourth-year history tuition as a revenue generator!” aren’t nearly as eye-catching as strike tactics.

Unfortunately, good politics and solid policy rarely grab as much attention.

The Quebec student strikes have highlighted important concerns about accessibility, affordability, and cost-sharing, situations relatable to Ontario students burdened by unfairly shifting costs. Instead of dialogue equating the importance of a university education with its ultimate financial consequences, we also need to tailor our discussions on quality within the undergraduate context.

These concerns are not limited to students. Faculty and administration are hypersensitive to the changing field and nature of post-secondary education, but universities in Quebec have been quiet on the ongoing strike.

Discussions on tuition must include an understanding of the roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders: government, universities and students.

I was born in Quebec City. If I had chosen to attend any university in Quebec, it’s possible that I would be paying less than half of my Queen’s tuition. The legacy of your Queen’s education cannot be simplified into a bottom line.

The Quebec student strike has done a tremendous job of casting major attention on the financial cost of a Quebec education, but the pivotal issue that remains is how to measure exactly how much tuition we should be paying, and how we calculate if it’s worth the cost.

Isabelle Duchaine is the AMS Academic Affairs Commissioner


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This entry was posted in Clippings, Context - National, Provincial, Governmental, Student Debt, Tuition / Tuition Hikes. Bookmark the permalink.

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