Sweeping Education Under the Rug

Quebec Universities Must Change Tactics to Increase Funding

Graphic Graeme Shorten Adams

On the surface, this year’s provincial election campaign looks no different than the last.

Like the one in the fall of 2012, this spring’s campaign is dominated by incessant talk of a referendum, the Parti Québécois attacking the Liberals over corruption, and a wealth of cringe-worthy political one-liners.

But something’s missing.

Gone are the students banging pots and pans in the streets, National Assembly hopefuls proudly donning a red square, and the media debating whether students were just looking for a way to skip class.

Perhaps it’s a reflection on the notorious fickleness of Quebec voters, who have simply forgotten that no consensus was reached following last year’s provincial Summit on Higher Education.

Or maybe it’s just good politics on the part of the major candidates, sweeping the issue under the rug in favour of campaign points sure to get them elected—the promise of a values charter by the PQ, the pledge of lower taxes by the CAQ, the guarantee by the Liberals that they’ll take care of the “real issues.”

Regardless of the reason, the fact remains that the unresolved issues of university funding and tuition fees that led to the biggest student protest movement in Canadian history and launched the 2012 general elections have seemingly vanished from public discourse.

Not the politicians, nor the pundits, seem to want to talk about it anymore. Getting candidates talking about education in our news section was harder than it should have been.

But as Université de Montréal rector Guy Breton reminded us last week, the dire state of our universities’ funding hasn’t disappeared just because our elected officials have seemingly stopped looking for solutions. 

He and 14 other Quebec university rectors noted in a publicity campaign last week that Quebec universities are underfunded by $850 million annually—in other words, they have about $5,000 a year less to spend per student than universities in the rest of Canada.

It may not mean much now, but, as Breton warned, our university system itself could be in jeopardy if university funding isn’t boosted by 2020.

It’s easy to blame the PQ for this. After all, they were the ones who, just a year ago, were joining students out on the streets at night, marching in solidarity against then-Liberal premier Jean Charest’s planned tuition hike.

But the PQ did their part. As she said she would, Premier Pauline Marois held a summit on higher education and cancelled Charest’s hike, announcing in its place more investment in our universities and indexed tuition fees.

Considering how little of this year’s election campaign has touched on higher education, it’s clear that for the PQ the case is closed.

But indexation—which the Liberals and CAQ agree with—isn’t a synonym for accessible education, nor is an investment of $1.7 billion over seven years the end-all cure for Quebec’s university underfunding.

As McGill Principal Suzanne Fortier pointed out in the Gazette last week, even with the investment pledged by the PQ, it will only close the province’s gap with the Canadian average by about half.

Meanwhile, indexation is really the same thing as Charest’s proposed hike of $1,625 over seven years, only spread out over a longer period of time.

Ultimately, the summit left students disappointed, while Breton was left “lament[ing] the fact a coalition of trade unions and student federations succeeded in derailing the Liberal proposal to require students to contribute more to their educations,” as the National Post’s Graeme Hamilton put it.

But students and universities shouldn’t be on opposite sides of the table.

Breton is correct in arguing higher education should be at the forefront of the issues being discussed during the campaign. But he’s still trying to go about it much like the way he did before the 2012 student strike.

“Subsidies, tuition fees, a tax on companies, I don’t care what it is,” Breton told the Gazette this past week. “I just want per student funding here equivalent to the average of the rest of Canada.”

But Breton should care. Subsidies and taxes on companies are methods students and proponents of accessible higher education can help advocate for. Hiking tuition fees, well, the province already made its stance clear on that.

There’s no denying Breton’s point: the funding of Quebec’s universities simply doesn’t compare to those outside the province. This is money that not only helps keep universities running and their staff employed, but also serves the province—and indeed the country—in areas of research and in regards to the quality of education offered.

Look out west and you might think the answer to Quebec’s university funding crisis is to increase tuition fees to a level on par with the rest of the nation.

But a look outside Canada, to Scandinavia, paints a different picture. There lie some of the best-funded universities in the world, trendsetters in terms of quality of education and leaders in research and development.

And it’s achieved not by commoditizing education, as nearly all of the region’s states demand no tuition fees at all, but instead by drawing funds almost entirely from state grants.

Politics is the only thing keeping Quebec from doing the same—or at least, from heading in that direction.

Bringing up the fact higher education has been largely ignored in this electoral campaign is a start. Suggesting tuition hikes should be put back on the table is taking two steps back.

The way the picture is framed now it’s as though Quebecers must choose between affordable tuition fees or better quality higher education. But both are possible—the example is already set, all that’s needed is for us to follow it.

Perhaps the best way to make it happen is for students and university rectors to treat the issues of accessibility and quality as a group project rather than as individual assignments.