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August 13, 2004 — 12 PM

School’s Out For Summer

Paul Wells has another interesting train of thought churning through the Maclean’s station, this time on the idea that lower tuition fees work against the very people they are ostensibly there to protect: the people who can least afford university.

Starting with a cogent observation about recent comments by the Quebec education minister, continuing on to the question of social equity and finishing with evidence from British Columbia, Wells tries to prove that governments should raise tuition fees everywhere to force those that can afford to pay more to do so.

According to reports cited by Wells, Quebec has decided to cut the number of bursaries it hands out rather than raise tuition fees because the former is more politically palatable. Evidently it is necessary to alter the funding in some way due to budget restraints, and raising taxes for the general population is also politically impossible.

The folly of this is that it means students who receive bursaries — those from families with the lowest incomes — will have to take out more loans instead, while students who might in theory be able to afford to pay more, with no loans at all, will continue to get their prized piece of paper on the cheap.

(Meanwhile, in British Columbia, a lack of funding has forced universities to limit enrolment to the point that you now need nearly a 90% average in high school grades to gain acceptance to UBC.)

Quebec has a very strong student federation lobby which clamourously opposes even the merest mention of tuition fee hikes. I’m forced to agree with Wells though: better to raise tuition to a level that allows adequate funding and then offer bursaries to those with lower incomes to compensate. Moreover, punishing people for anything less than perfection in high school is asinine. If you accept the correlation that rich people usually have access to better education and tend to perform better (for whatever reason), then this policy of maintaining flat tuition rates for all makes even less sense.

During the four years in which I completed my bachelor’s degree, it seemed pointedly obvious that my school was underfunded. We had old equipment in our labs, crumbling classrooms and next to no scholarship opportunities. I would have happily paid more if I knew that it were going towards my own education, since I could have afforded it, with the knowledge that if one couldn’t, there would be ways around it.

Canadians love to talk about the exorbitant tuition fees at most American schools, and how our education system is so affordable in comparison. The fact is, the U.S. schools that charge the most also have cauldrons of money to pour over students in scholarships and bursaries — if you’re a smart kid from a poor family, you’re still going to have a good shot at a world-class education. And there is still lots of money left over to hire the best professors, build the best research labs, and keep the country’s schools at the top of the educated world. If you’re rich, then you are helping to subsidize the best. If you’re poor, you can come along for the ride anyway. Here we instead seem to accept that everyone should have the opportunity to pay full, if cheap, tuition for a second-rate education. Odd for a country that normally prides itself on having such a high measure of democratic socialism.

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Previously: Organesque

Subsequently: Grande Americano

August 2004
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