Quebec’s Student Protests and Cheap (Or Free!) University Tuitions

As Quebec’s student protests show no signs of slowing down, it seems a good time to weigh in on the fundamental issue driving them: a fair and financially feasible policy stance on post-secondary tuition fees. Policy may not be as sexy as a mass demonstration, but it’s really the heart of the matter here.

Let me start out by saying I am not without sympathy for the Quebec student protesters. No Canadians know how to throw a protest like our Quebecois, bless ‘em. And the post-secondary affordability issue in la belle Provence has crystallized the problem of spiralling tuition fees on behalf of students (and parents) in other provinces across Canada who have been unable to pull together and make their voices heard. [1]

However, if the problem of high tuition fees has been highlighted, its solutions are far from clear. Students and their supporters have a pretty straightforward proposal: lower or eliminate tuition fees. In fact, this blog is a response to this position, taken in a recent circulation by the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives, aptly title Five Reasons Why You Should Support a Move to Lower Tuition Fees in Canada. Here’s the author’s case, with my responses:

1. Making university education affordable would allow more Canadians to access this key tool for social mobility.

This is an appealing argument because it speaks to social justice. But it’s not supported by research. The author is correct when she states that “university education is a route to considerably higher lifetime earnings and the financial benefit of having a university degree has increased over the last 20 years.” But she’s wrong about the financial barriers part: Generally, programs that have sought to reduce access barriers for lower SES families have not been successful [2]. It ain’t just about money; the causes of unequal participation in education are complex – they involve geography, institutionalized racism, social class and culture. These factors are not addressed simply by removing financial barriers.

2. Financial barriers to education impact Canada’s economic wellbeing.

This is an interesting argument because it depends on the extent to which one buys into the promise of the “knowledge economy,” which is a core idea of human capital theory.  Here’s a nice definition from a recent work:

Human capital concepts posit that an increasing number of individuals will prepare themselves for success in a knowledge economy by gaining academic and professional credentials, which, in turn, will open up and democratise career pathways [3].

So here, Ivanova is accepting the proposition that higher education levels lead to economic growth. The problem is that faith in the value of expanding education opportunities is just that – faith. Critics of human capital theory point to the rise of low-income service jobs and high youth unemployment rates suggest that more education is actually leading to underemployment and credential inflation [4].

3. Higher education is increasingly becoming a standard job requirement.

Here, the author is correct, and pragmatic. But she doesn’t challenge whether higher education ought to be a standard job requirement. Again referring to the credential inflation argument above, a counter position is that the growing need for education reflects competition for too few “good” jobs rather than a shift in the actual skills  and knowledge needed in workplaces. (I’d actually argue it is some of both.) The question of actual requirements for work is also important when considering who ought to be responsible for the education/training of workers: an issue I’ll take up shortly here.

4. Student loans don’t make up for high tuition fees.

I agree with the author on this point. She sites average student debt loads in excess of $25,000 for a four year degree. And this is a crappy way to start one’s working life as a young person. New graduates are pressured to chase high paying jobs because the entry level jobs they perhaps ought to be accepting (if these are even available) often don’t pay enough to make a living and pay off student loan debt. Welcome back to your parents’ basements.

5. Education is a great investment for our public dollars: students repay the full cost of their education through taxes over their working careers.

The author is arguing that public investment in higher education will pay off in the future through a wealthier tax base. Ivanova here relies on reliable and oft-cited statistical correlations between higher education to higher workplace compensation. However, the argument also incorporates the assumption that what’s happened in the past will continue to happen. This is the same erroneous logic that drove the housing bubble in the United States: a belief that housing prices would never drop because they never had. Investment prospectuses state that “past performance is no guarantee of future results,” and this similarly applies to our “investments” in education.

So What’s The Answer?

As ever, I do not have one. In challenging the positions put forward by CCPA, I’m certainly not advocating for the status quo of ever-escalating costs for students and their families [3]. I have young adult children, and their struggles are real.

My concern, rather, is this: Arguments that more and more formal education is an absolute requirement for financial well-being and social justice play right in to the hands of employers who lack both ethos and incentives to invest in their own workers.

Think of it this way. Formal education, no matter who’s paying for it, is incredibly expensive. When it’s costs are born privately, by students and their families, we have the problem Ivanova identifies in (3) above: young adults essentially forced to mortgage their futures. When the cost is born publicly, everyone pays (including those who don’t benefit from education by pursuing it).

One could argue that employers are also paying indirectly for formal education through the tax system, but this fails to address a second reality about formal education: It’s incredibly inefficient. Some stuff is just learned best on the job and through experience, and at some point, piling on more “book learning” is just using the wrong tool for the job. Yet employers continue to demand “job ready” candidates, and continue to regard training, mentoring and teaching in the workplace a burden rather than a sound investment.

So when we make arguments about whether students or the public ought to be paying for formal education – and that’s really what the tuition debate in Quebec boils down to – we need to keep in mind that there is another stakeholder here: Canada’s employers. Are they bearing their “fair share” when it comes to paying for the development of workers’ knowledge and skills?

Further, we need to stop making the assumption that formal education is and ought to be the only route to fulfilling work and learning. I believe we just don’t realize how trapped we really are by this idea, and how much it feeds into a system that diminishes the parts of our productivity, wisdom and creativity that aren’t legit unless they’re credentialed. It is this way of thinking – not financial barriers to university access – that feeds “injustice” in work and learning at its deepest levels.

Notes and References

[1] I should also add that I am not without sympathy for those being negatively affected by the protests. I think this opinion piece from a “protest protestor” is well thought out.

[2] In Canada, studies coming out of Canada’s Millenium Scholarship Program found that bursaries had little impact on enrolment among target groups, including lower SES families. See Backus, J., & Lavallee, L. (2008). Impact of Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation Bursaries on postsecondary education persistence , completion and debt levels.

For a review of international findings, see See Marcucci, P. N., & Johnstone, D. B. (2007). Tuition fee policies in a comparative perspective: Theoretical and political rationales. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 29(1), 25-40.

Additional Canadian Policy Research: Finnie, R., Mueller, R. E., & Sweetman, A. (2008). Who goes? Who stays? What matters?: Accessing and persisting in post-secondary education in Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press.

[3] Lehmann, W. (2012). Extra-credential experiences and social closure : working-class students at university. British Educational Research Journal, 38(2), 37-41. The same argument is made in a very recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) forecasting Canada’s economic prospects.

[4] Holy footnotes here… For critics who argue that there are too many educated people chasing too few “good” jobs, see Livingstone, D.W. (2009) Education and jobs: Exploring the gaps. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, and Brown, P. The Opportunity Trap: Education and employment in a global economy. European Educational Research Journal, 2(1), 141.



  1. I’ve made several of these arguments myself, particularly the one about credential creep. Most BC teachers have five or six years of post-secondary education before they begin their career. Most teachers forty years ago had only two years. Although education is never wasted, and all that extra schooling is no doubt beneficial, it is difficult to make the case that it is universally essential today where it was not a generation or two ago.

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