Saturday, May 26, 2012

Tuition Fees Increases

Currently, the big news in Canada is the tuition fee increase in the province of Quebec. In particular, it is the student protest that is getting the headlines.

I remember myself experiencing a transition more than 20 years ago. In my first two years as a University student, I pay only a few hundred dollars of tuition fees. While that is only a small percentage of the total fees, I have to sign some government papers that essentially entitles me to receive a cheque that pays off the majority of the actual fees to the University. In my third year, there was a major shift in terms of government funding. The hand out has turned into interest-free loans. That means I get to apply for bank loans from local banks, interest free for a short period of time, payable the year after I graduate. The amount came up to be a few thousand dollars. After my graduation, I got a job and promptly paid off the bank loans in less than a year. Piece of cake. Those were times of low tuition and high education subsidy. Of course, my generation experiences less than my predecessors, who pay even less tuition.

Student Protesters in Montreal (Credit: National Post)

Those of us in other provinces outside Montreal will be appalled at the protests based on at least two reasons. First, Quebec students pay the lowest tuition when compared to the rest of the country. Second, the increase in tuition fees are considered pittance compared to the kinds of increases in other provinces. Take a look here.

My initial thinking is that, if anyone needs to protest, it is the rest of Canada more than Quebec. The weighted average annual tuition for Canadians is $5535. Montreal students only pay $3793, which is way lower than the national average. What then is the problem?

The problem lies not in the final number but the sudden jump in costs. If you have been paying $1968 per year, think about what it means to be suddenly paying $3793. That's almost double. It is not the increase per se but the quantum and the suddenness of it all.

A) Double Whammy on the Education Front

Fast forward twenty years later, the picture has changed. Tuition fees are much higher than before. Subsidies are much lower than before. That is a double whammy which students bear the brunt of the costs. We understand that professors need to be paid. School facilities need to be maintained. Equipment need to be upgraded. Governments want to cut costs.  With governments around the world tightening their belts, and with lesser money being channeled to education, students are now saddled with thousands of dollars of debt the moment they receive their degree. My daughter tells me that one of her teachers only managed to repay her student loans after many years of work. Thanks to a blogger friend, I came across this article that gives a fresh take on the current student protests in Montreal.

It is also easy to point a finger at our existing generation about them having a sense of entitlement. I have heard that from many of my contemporaries. Initially, I too have jumped on the same bandwagon. Now I see with eyes from the other side as well. Before any one generation points a finger at another generation, remember that backgrounds are different. Times are different. Life was very much different, as far as tuition fees are concerned.

  • Government subsidies for education thirty years ago are more generous than existing ones.
  • Tuition fees back then are much cheaper than present times.
  • Market forces in the past are way different from this current era.
B) At Least Understand The Students

If you do not support any forms of student protests, that is fine. In fact, I am all for non-violence and for a return to normalcy as much as possible. Having said that, the minimum any man in the street can do is to understand the predicament of students. I want to speak out for students primarily because I feel that education is a core part of any society. Students have a right to a proper education. Students have a right for government money to go into the educational fund. If governments aim to cut educational budgets, they must also make sure they register a tax cut for these persons when they enter the marketplace. 

As the media focuses more on protests they call "violent," and how such students have been "arrested" like criminals, and how they are burdening the justice system, let us not forget that students are not doing these for fun. In any violence, there needs to be two parties. An instigator and a reactor. The trouble is, there are pockets of both students and the police that are guilty of both.

I think this tuition fee problem reflects a deeper systemic issue. It reflects how government does things. It reflects the different generational differences on the word "entitlement." It reflects a world of changing values that we are only beginning to see. It is not primarily about money. It is about agreeing how money is to be spent.


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