Tuition Increases and the Underfunding Myth: Where Your Education Money is Actually Being Spent

Everyone’s heard about how Montreal universities are underfunded and that the quality of students’ education is suffering. These issues are as established in public dialogue as an aged spaghetti stain, permanent and unforgiving, and monopolizing all the attention. Forgive me for being saucy, but I’ve got news for you. Along with the saying that universities are “drastically underfunded”, I just discovered a whole layer of bullshit underlying the Montreal Chamber of Commerce’s suggestion to increase Quebec university tuition.

Before we get into it, ask yourself this question: Who do you want to believe? The student member of a non-profit organization that believes education and health and social services should be funded by strong government programs, or a press release detailing a rational yet self-interested agenda on behalf of the business world?

I’d like to introduce Erik Chevrier, member of the Free Education Montreal organization, versus a slew of communications representatives from the Montreal business community. You may think I’m framing this issue a little lopsided, but honestly, does anyone else dare say we should raise tuition fees other than the Montreal Chamber of Commerce? It’s okay, they can say it. They’re the big boys of business; they get away with much more than just corporate tax breaks.

Before we make any more unfounded statements describing the state of our schools and our student loans and whatnot, let’s look at some facts together. The Montreal Chamber of Commerce is an interest group acting in the Government arena on behalf of Montreal businesses that published a press release with the ambitious idea of raising tuition fees to rectify a situation that everyone seems to be familiar with: the underfunding of universities. “The principle associations that represent businesses in Quebec ask the government to bring education to the table as a priority”. Their proposal asks for a tuition increase of $1000 per year over a three year period for newly enrolled students.

Even though the Chamber press release reassures its reader that the student loans system would be adjusted accordingly over this period of increased tuition (join me in a sarcastic “hurrah”), this plan implies further financial responsibility on the students, whether it be immediately upon entering school, or when they start paying back their student loans.

On the other side of the spectrum, Free Education Montreal (FreeEdMtl) is a non-profit organization that treats education as a societal right and responsibility. The organization opposes increases in tuition rates and “encourages students and other community members to think critically about education, the role and responsibilities of educators and students”. On occasions such as recent governmental and Chamber talks, FreeEdMtl brings together a variety of groups to participate in protests like the one held this past weekend.

Chevrier from FreeEdMtl was the last person I expected to say that “treating our universities as underfunded is problematic”. He makes some great points, first by stating that university roles are shifting away from providing education to providing for business needs. I mean, tell me that Concordia’s beautiful $118.5-million MB building on De Maisonneuve and Guy Street was an education need and not a budgetary ego trip. Concordia magazine says that the university’s “brand equity will be bolstered” and the business school’s “top-flight facilities are on par with its high-calibre academic standing”. Couldn’t they just have bought a fleet of mustard yellow 4×4’s and circled the McGill campus if they’re so concerned about whose dick is the biggest? It would’ve at least been more cost-effective.

In any case, that’s money that was destined to education that isn’t technically missing; it’s gone missing. The Chamber’s attempt to make students pay for “insufficient university funding” is a perpetration of an endless cycle depicting the mismanagement of budgets by the few people who control them at the top of the business and education hierarchies. In Chevrier’s words, the powerful few at the top “put their efforts into making people in lower income brackets pay for health care and their social services…” to cover the costs of those just-plain-old extravagant spending priorities and mistakes.

These extravagant and “boo-boo” types of spending are where all the money is going, according to Chevrier. While Concordia
University was building the beautiful new MB building, the university payed out a $700 000 good-bye fee to the university’s president Claude Lajeunesse upon his mutual agreement with the Concordia Board of Governors to step down from presidency in 2007. So, the universities being underfunded isn’t necessarily the foundational issue at hand; it’s that the administration spends wastefully on things that could be avoided, or at least put back into the education system.

So, in the words of Wyclef Jean, “If I was president, I’d get elected on Friday/ get a new condo on Saturday/ fired on Sunday/ then get a hefty severance package on Monday”.

The Chamber’s desire to stay out of the financial wallet-shed is fairly transparent given all the love and attention they give to their justifications for not contributing to the tuition-increase cause. What they really want to say in their press release full of lovely syntax is that Quebec students contribute less to their own education than any other student in Canada; tuition in Quebec is approximately $3000 less per year than other Canadian universities.

…So, punish those Quebec students! Make them pay!

Wait a second. There’s some holes in the Chamber’s spin.

Chevrier puts it best: “Justifying that we’re really privileged and that it should be removed so that we’re paying the Canadian average is a really strange argument. They’re saying that university education will mean more to students if it costs more”. Making education more expensive doesn’t necessarily make it more meaningful or more worthwhile, but it definitely affects those who have trouble affording it in lower income brackets. “They’re basically proposing more loans instead of subsidizing education… they’re expecting students to come out of school with an even deeper burden.”

Let’s not forget that Quebec residents pay the highest taxes in Canada. Therefore, Chevrier notes that “we should have strong social services that subsidize education, but what seems to be happening is a shift in priorities and the population doesn’t benefit from these high taxes”.

What are some concrete solutions to prevent tuition fee increases? The solution is in more
than just displacing the fees on the Government, the schools, or the students; in reality, every time that tuition has increased, the government has withdrawn an equivalent amount of money from university funding. Essentially, tuition increases do nothing for underfunded universities.

The solution is in more than another protest, too. The solution starts with demystifying the idea that not enough money is being invested in our schools. It continues to materialize with unveiling the truth, of getting informed as to where that money is actually going. We’ll get even closer to a solution when the Quebec Government shifts their commitment away from business and more toward the social sphere where it can protect Quebec youths’ futures.

Now that the Quebec budget has been introduced, including a significant tuition hike, a protest is planned for tomorrow morning the 18th of March at the Hilton Bonaventure at 11:30 AM. All are welcome and more details can be found on the facebook event.


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  • It’s amazing how some lines get swallowed by almost all the media and the people follow. While I’ve thought for a long time that a university education is a right not a privilege, I even bought the line about underfunding, but when you see it for what it is, it just seems like another Shock Doctrine (Google Naomi Klein if you don’t know what this is).

  • Much of where the money goes is to tax cuts – it is money that the government foregos, rather than spends poorly. This is an old strategy from “small-government” conservatives and it works by appealing to greed and fear. First you get elected on a platform of tax cuts (the greed), and then when your government revenues fall as a result you start cutting social programs to save the government from the resulting financial problems (fear). It makes no difference which party: Paul Martin’s cuts to education transfers were passed on to the PQ in the 1990’s, and the PQ happily eviscerated university budgets. When it came to supplying student aid, the government switched from bug bursaries and small loans to small bursaries and big loans – student debt increased substantially. On the other hand, conservative and right wing governments consider spending on things like defense, policing, and corporate welfare as essential (more fears addressed), so it does not get cut – it is usually even increased. So, conservatives (small and large ‘c’) claim that there is no money for stupid, useless things like health care and education, they can spend a billion dollars on letting cops beat up peaceful protestors for a couple of days, or more than $20 billion on protecting the world’s heroin supply in Afghanistan.

  • Great points Bob, whether in Wisconsin or our universities, it really is never about the budget…

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