Tuition: Quebec’s stand is the right one

Open Letter co-signed by Yves-Thomas Dorval, president of the Quebec Employers Council
The Gazette, p. A04 – May 3, 2012

Quebec society is faced with a relatively simple choice that nevertheless seems difficult for some to accept: should we increase the funding of our universities by asking students to pay a reasonable part of what their education costs?

For a vast majority of Quebecers and for two thirds of the student population, the answer is yes.

Popular wisdom grants that a distinct society recognized as a very small minority in North America can only develop if it has access to highly qualified labour with skills rooted in a firstrate education. Quebecers have understood that we must strike a balance between the contributions of all taxpayers and those required from the students.

But mostly, a large majority of Quebecers are acknowledging the necessity of better funding for our universities while implementing a system optimally calibrated to ensure accessibility to graduate studies.

And that is the key message that we should all keep in mind.

It is in fact the proposition we brought forward in February 2010, when we united our voices in signing a pact calling for better university funding. We were basing this proposal on four fundamental principles: accessibility, fairness, excellence, and efficiency.

In order to better align tuition fees in Quebec with the Canadian average, we suggested an increase of $1,000 a year over three years. We felt that such an increase in tuition fees was necessary to make up for the gap created by the freeze of the previous years.

We also believed that this increased student participation had to be supported by an official commitment from the government to not decrease its funding, to significantly improve the loans and bursaries system, and to implement a revenue-proportional loanrepayment program.

We were also asking for a pro-rating of tuition fees according to the university chosen, educational level and discipline, in order to better account for the education costs and variable individual performances of the educational investments. This would result in reducing tuition fees in some disciplines and increasing them in others.

In its 2011 budget, the provincial government announced a yearly tuition increase of $325 over five years. Then, in light of the response from student associations these past weeks, the government made a number of concessions, the latest being an extension of the span of the increase to seven years, which translates into an annual $254 rise over that period of time. It has also substantially enhanced the loans and bursaries system, thus responding to accessibility concerns.

Let us not forget that, in its 2010 budget, the Quebec government also decided to boost its own spending on higher education and has asked the private sector to pay additional taxes to absorb the recurrent yearly deficit of universities, which was around $600 million in 2010.

In short, everyone was called upon to put their shoulder to the wheel. Now it is time for students to pitch in as well.

In 2010, we wrote: « The situation demands that we collectively come to an agreement. » The time has come for such an agreement.

Everyone understands that what the students are contesting has long moved beyond the matter of a simple increase in tuition fees. The extent of the disruptions being forced on Quebec society far exceeds the scope of the government’s decision.

It is time that we react. We must reinstate order; the students have to return to class; and all efforts must be made to save a semester already terribly jeopardized. This is a situation when, regardless of political allegiances, the population must support the state, which is ultimately responsible for public order, the safety of individuals and the integrity of our institutions.

In any case, eventual elections will provide citizens with the opportunity to have their say in regard to the current debate and to decide the responsibilities of everyone involved. That is how democratic societies solve their conflicts and make their decisions – at the polls instead of in the streets.

Will some students rise to remind both their peers and the political leaders of tomorrow among them of this? Besides, shouldn’t we expect them to learn the inner workings of democracy by first accepting their responsibility as citizens to denounce the partisans of civil disobedience?

• Michel Audet, Former finance minister of Quebec
• Françoise Bertrand, President and chief executive officer of the Fédération des chambres de commerce du Québec
• Lucien Bouchard, Former premier of Quebec
• Marcel Boyer, Professor emeritus at the Université de Montréal
• Yves-Thomas Dorval, President of the Quebec Employers’ Council
• Joseph Facal, Former president of the Quebec Treasury Board
• Pierre Fortin, Professor emeritus at the Université du Québec à Montréal
• Michel Gervais, Former rector of Université Laval
• Monique Jérôme-Forget, Former finance minister of Quebec and former president of the Quebec Treasury Board
• Robert Lacroix, Former rector of the Université de Montréal
• Michel Leblanc, President and chief executive officer of the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal
• Claude Montmarquette, Professor emeritus at the Université de Montréal