Quebec, Canada, and Free Education

The real cause for the Quebec student protests is a failure of imagination. It’s time to stop thinking of education as a consumer commodity and start thinking of it as infrastructure.

This may be tl;dr for most people. If you want to skip ahead to the conclusion, I need you to go ahead and click here.

In the past week, both friends and internet pundits alike opined that post-secondary education is a commodity — something that an individual purchases to acquire skills to be used in the marketplace; therefore it’s up to the individual to save up to buy the education they can best afford and/or desire.

As they say on Tumblr: WAIT / WHAT IS THIS / I DON’T EVEN.

It starts with a neoliberal framing of society.

According to the Chicago / Austrian School of economic theory, everyone is an entrepreneur, citizens have been replaced with consumers, and nature is handily both a free storehouse of resources and a giant trash receptacle.

The ‘government’ — har har! — can’t do anything that private companies couldn’t do better – except give out massive tax breaks on demand – and regulations just get in the way, so snip snip, ministers. Austerity FTW! Sorry about that pig manure lagoon spill into that river! I’ll be on my yacht if you need to talk.

Everything is measured by market values, bottom-line results and performance scores, including you. If you fail, you’re a loser. Lazy. Possibly morally suspect. Because anyone can make it to the top if they try, so if you’re not doing well, you’ve obviously chosen to be poor.

I exaggerate only slightly; I doubt any of the critics have lived in a country subject to IMF / World Bank enforced restructuring (PDF), or lived through something like a CIA-backed military coup which quite literally forced Milton Friedman’s policies on your nation. The same neoliberal Big Lie has underpinned most Western economic and social policy since the 1970s, to very questionable gains except for the so-called one-percenters.

Its omnipresence in the political discourse, even into formerly social-democratic parties like the PQ, makes it literally difficult for us to envision alternatives, because we buy into its arguments uncritically.

So now we are divided (on purpose?) between those who dare to ask for the opportunity to succeed, and those who call them ‘spoiled crybabies’ and tell them to wake up to the realities of capitalism… all the while hoping you don’t notice the supreme irony that without government grants and tax credits, their well-paying jobs in media and the video games industry would move to Thailand overnight, if not vanish.

It misunderstands the core mission of higher education, which is not to turn people into marketable components for industrial use, but to make them better human beings.

University is meant to broaden our minds, introduce us to people of different socioeconomic backgrounds, learn about culture and society, question our assumptions, and help us to discover our passions. Ideally, it helps us to become informed leaders in a democratic society.

As a parallel goal, universities produce new knowledge and insights through faculty research, even if that research is inconvenient to the needs or desires of commerce, like the thousands of science faculties whose research underpins the global warming consensus.

Over the years our expectations have changed, and now we expect university to be a glorified trade school — not that there’s anything wrong with trade school per se — but if we follow that course of market-led logic, shouldn’t we abandon teaching all the “impractical” subjects, like arts, music, philosophy, theoretical physics, or English literature? Surely pipefitting and massage therapy are more desirable occupations; there’s high-paying jobs going in Alberta, I hear.

It’s exceedingly difficult to succeed with just a high-school diploma.

  • The unemployment rate for people without a college or university degree is approximately 15%, and those with jobs are much more likely to be relegated to low-income status.
  • The wage gap between high-school leavers and college or university graduates is significant, averaging out to $23,000 a year, and this gap only increases over a person’s career.
  • Living on a low income makes it much harder to build any sort of savings or retirement, and history shows that it’s subsequently really hard for families to break the cycle of poverty.
  • Government of Canada statistical research shows undeniable correlations between educational achievement, income and savings. 

Why wouldn’t we want everyone to succeed? Don’t we want them to become taxpayers and net contributors? Don’t we want to encourage social mobility and increase our Happiness Index?

Why risk having people fall into poverty with all of its costly, endemic social problems?

Whose failure would that be?

Tuition hikes impact women first, and hardest.

Numbers I’ve seen say that anywhere from 8,000 to a staggering 30,000 students — roughly 75% of Concordia’s current student population, by comparison — would be forced to forego higher education. It then puts a higher burden on students who stay in school, and usually means jacking up rates for out-of-province students; and then comes cuts to salaries and programs, freezes on hiring or promotion, and so on.

This becomes a double-whammy for people trying to escape poverty, as the promise of higher education slips further from their grasp; and to an overwhelming degree, this affects women both as students and as parents.

Concordia’s Part-Time Faculty Association (CUPFA) notes in their position paper:

  • As of 2008, women still earn 71 cents for every dollar earned by men; raising tuition fees will impact women first, perpetuating gender inequality.
  • Where a two-parent family would need to allocate 10% of their revenue to fund a BA for one child, a single woman would need to allocate 18% of her income to send a child to university, resulting in unequal access to state-funded institutions.
  • The economic rhetoric that students now need to “invest in their future” falls short when, even with the same postsecondary diploma, a woman will earn $863,268 less than a man over the course of her lifetime.
  • Suppose that two students – one a man, one a woman – each finish a BA with a debt of $25,000. At lower earnings, a woman will likely take much longer to pay off that debt, and with a higher proportion of interest, as well.

And of course: “Why can’t those students just get a job! I saw a student with a $600 smartphone! They’re getting student loan debt to go get tattoos, buy smokes and go partying every weekend!”

Statistics Canada reports that:

  • 80% of students work while pursuing full-time studies.
  • 40% receive no financial aid from their parents.
  • Nearly 2/3 of students don’t live with their parents.
  • About 50% of students make only about $12,200 per year, below the $16,320 national poverty line.
  • 57% of students go into debt to pay for their education
  • 65% of Quebec students graduate with an average debt of $14,000, less than the national average, but harder to pay off due to higher Quebec taxes.
  • Unemployment for those 15-24, which covers university students, is currently hovering around 15%, double the national figure.

On average, Quebec students work more than is strictly good for their academic performance — about 16 hours a week during the school term, which is likely to increase — and those that can do work during the summer break as well.

I am pretty sure that everyone who needs to work is looking for a job, and if they are lucky to get one, they work as many hours as they can. That said, it’s hard to find jobs that offer scheduling flexibility around one’s studies, so systemically, some proportion of the student population either squeaks by, does without, or relies on debt to cover periods of low or no income.

As to students with smartphones:

  • There are several smartphones given away free with cell phone plans nowadays. Even iPhones.
  • Nobody pays $600 upfront for a phone unless you’re buying it unlocked; the price of the phone is subsidized into the cost of the monthly plan.
  • You don’t know who’s paying for the phone. I know plenty of parents that happily pay their kids’ cellphone bills because they want to know where they are and be able to keep in touch. Many workplaces subsidize phone and internet bills, too.
  • This is the generation that was brought up with computers virtually in their playpens, that we expect to innovate and run the digital world of tomorrow™. You expect them to put up with a dumbphone? (Let me take away your laptop, this abacus and slide-rule should suffice for bean-counting.)
  • Think of it as opportunity cost. For me, it’s a pocket-sized source of continuing education; I read dozens of articles a week while riding the bus. I hear about jobs, internships, and networking opportunities from social media every single day. Smartphones (or tablets or laptops, take your pick) arguably pay for themselves – and I never met a BlackBerry user that wasn’t a little money-focused, for what it’s worth.
  • I wonder if it’s just the fact that the ‘wrong kind’ of students – i.e. scruffy arts types – have them, and we give the crisply pressed business school kids a pass?

As to students’ questionable lifestyle and budget decisions: Everyone should learn to live within a budget, no question, and partying oneself into debt is dumb. Some kids living on their own for the first time make financial mistakes, and more than a few get little to no financial education either from school or at home. (I was lucky enough to live at home through most of university, but then I accumulated debt almost immediately after moving out).

That said: Not all students are partying at all times. Some students are merely partying more visibly than others.

Unless we all want to open up our financial histories for public scrutiny to see who’s worthy of passing comment on others, maybe we had better let that argument drop.

Meanwhile in Denmark…

Danish university is completely free for Danes and most EEC citizens. In addition, all Danish students are offered monthly financial aid grants; DKK 2,728 monthly (CAD $473) if the student lives at home, and about DKK 5,486 (CAD $951) monthly if the student lives away from home. Both students and parents can supplement this with low-interest government loans. For 18-19 year olds, the grant size depends on your parents’ income.

Even at high Danish tax rates, this means that it’s entirely possible to graduate university or vocational training with moderate to zero debt. Even as the Danish economy, which was in surplus mode as recently as 2008, took a hit with the global recession, they manage to maintain debt levels (as a portion of GDP) half that of Canada’s and are slowly growing again. Canada’s currently slightly below the OECD average for university graduation, where the Scandinavian countries are all near the top of the rankings. What are we missing, here?

The Scandinavian model has other parallels to Quebec, in terms of being aging societies about to face a wave of Boomer retirement, with a relatively smaller youth population following on. But rather than shortchange both the next generation’s chances and also impoverish their own retirements, their model seems to be set on balancing the system:

Some mistakenly see a generational war going on here. But the austerity fetishists also have their sights set on the older crowd, with plans to take away two years of their retirement.

Under the more sensible Scandinavian approach — banned under the business dogma that dominates here — the tax and transfer system helps citizens move through the stages of their lives.

Education is paid for by those in the workforce whose retirement will later be paid for by the students whose education they paid for. Over the life cycle, it all works out. Everybody contributes when they’re working, and gets a hand at the beginning and end of their lives.

Everyone also has a chance to develop to the best of their abilities, maximizing their own potential and raising national productivity.

— Linda McQuaig, Toronto Star

Quebecers aren’t spoiled. They just want to keep what they fought for.*

For Quebecers, access to education has been a long, hard-fought battle. Since 1875, most French-language education in Quebec was run by the Catholic Church, and it was pretty terrible.

As late as the 1950s, when most of the rest of the US and Canada was modernizing in the postwar boom, Quebec was a relative backwater, corrupt and direly poor, with stunted economic and social progress. Only 13% of francophones even graduated high school, compared to 36% of anglophones; most only had a seventh-grade diploma.

French-language higher education was a relatively outmoded classical curriculum with an emphasis on Latin, the popular joke being that it was designed to limit your career options to doctor, lawyer or priest, presumably leaving the fields of finance and engineering wide open for the anglo elites. Poor uneducated Quebecers had larger families, too. Between that and the incredible difficulty in getting loans and other capital from English banks, it was a setup that perpetuated an indebted francophone underclass. (Healthcare wasn’t free then either, remember.)

The educational reforms of the 1960s brought Quebec squarely forward. Being able to attend university affordably wasn’t taken for granted. I would say it still isn’t; we have long memories here. Along with many of the other progressive features of post-Quiet Revolution Quebec society, it’s imbued with a sense of collective achievement and empowerment. It’s something that is ongoing today; I’m sure there are still some pure-laine students who are the first in their family to get a bachelor’s degree. And we shouldn’t underestimate education’s role in helping new Quebecers build a place for themselves here.

Free education isn’t free, but neither are electricity or roads.

Most of the analyses show that the money is there, in the system, to keep tuition affordable. It’s even estimated that raising the GST by as little as 1% would easily fund university tuition for every student in Canada.

What seems critical to me is that Quebec needs to be courageous once again and reject the neoliberal snake oil. It means the suburbanites need to make common cause with the Plateauites and the Boomers with the students, because there’s bigger things at stake. That’s not going to be easy.

It’s clear that when education is free and students can graduate without crippling debt loads, a country becomes wealthier and their society becomes more equitable. Like universal healthcare, it’s a win-win.

And like universal healthcare, electricity, clean water, public transit and highways, we need to stop thinking of education as a commodity or a luxury. It’s infrastructure, because we’re all better off when everyone has it. Doesn’t mean we don’t have to manage the costs or the financing, but it’s something our society needs to function effectively, to compete globally, and to ensure a progressively fairer life with opportunity for everyone.

One final thought

I can’t help but think that if those reforms hadn’t happened in the 60s, Montreal would have been left even further behind than it might have been. As the city’s manufacturing and shipping base fled in the 50s, in the rise of air transit and the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, we could easily have gone the way of many Rust Belt cities, like Cleveland or Detroit.

The landscape of Montreal is very different now; aerospace, biotech, pharma, startup accelerators, new TV channels, Web businesses, world-class cinema, the billion-selling Cirque, Moment Factory, literature, rockstar chefs, you name it. Every business that starts here, or moves here, is because we have an educated population. Quebec’s world standing as a hub of culture, design, arts and creativity is intimately linked to that.

We cannot go backwards; the future is clear. How we go forward is up to us.


Instead of complaining about what a great deal Quebecers get compared to the rest of Canada, why not ask your provincial government to do something about your local rates? Just sayin’.