The Tale of Two University Students: A discussion about Student Tuition

As Premier Jean Charest kept trying to inform these angry students, even with the annual increases factored in, the average tuition in Quebec would rise to only $3,793 per year, which would still be among the lowest tuitions in Canada. Tuition at the University of Calgary, by contrast, is $5,257, or $6,264 when you include the fees. Currently, Canada’s top-ranked university — McGill — charges just $2,168 for basic tuition, or $3,727 once all of the compulsory fees are factored in for Quebecers. But, for an out-of-province student, basic tuition at McGill costs $5,858 and increases to $7,417 once the fees are added.

  • Corbella: How rioting students help make me grateful, By Licia Corbella May 11, 2012, Calgary Herald

I have been reading a number of Opinions about the protests that have been going on in Quebec. Many of them, including Licia Corbella, have argued that the Quebec Students are spoiled and ungrateful. In many ways, it is hard to argue that. From what has been televised, one can only see people who are looting store or causing other criminal acts. Considering that they are getting a world class education for pennies, it is hard to understand why these students are complaining.

Furthermore, if we compare these students to those in Iran, China or Syria, one cannot help but get further enraged. For while students in those countries do not pay significant amounts for their education, they do not get the freedom to learn, study and debate in a free setting. Government minders in those countries ensure that the students are a social class without political rights but with an education.

Political rights are important because they allow a student to practice their trade. Or put differently, if an engineer is going to certify a building, they need government permission. What happens when a bureaucrat demands something from this hypothetical engineer for their approval? What happens if the engineer has to approve an unsafe building or pay a bribe to ensure that government permission is granted to a project that they are working on? Simply put, bribes are taken and bad structures are built. Accordingly, without having political rights students will not be effectively able to use their knowledge.

Therefore, Quebec students should be happy. They have the right to read and study. They have the right to express themselves politically and they get a world class education. For a degree from L’Université du Québec à Montréal or Bishop’s or McGill could provide a student with a ticket to the world.

And then I caught Dr. Amy Gutmann on MSNBC. To be fair, she was not speaking about the issue of protests/riots in Quebec. However, what she was speaking about was student tuition. For a bit of history, let me give you Dr. Gutman’s Bio.

Dr. Gutmann is the eighth president of the University of Pennsylvania. She is a political theorist who has taught at Princeton University. Dr. Gutmann studied at Radcliffe College, the London School of Economics, and Harvard University. Or put differently, she is not a dumb lady.

While, she was flogging a book on the show “Morning Joe”, one journalist asked her about her University’s policy on student loans. For, “Penn State” has a simple policy: every student leaves that university without a student loan. Those who can afford to pay will be asked to will be asked to pay $42,098. However, those who cannot afford to pay get bursaries or grants. As, Dr. Gutmann said they ask their students to work hard to get to the University of Pennsylvania and while they are a University; therefore, the gift of a loan-free education is their reward.

When I heard this I was shocked. Now I have not done an exhaustive search of their websites, policies or procedures. Therefore, Dr. Gutmann words are my proof. But imagine that – a University who, in theory and hopefully in practice, provides a debt free education. As a Canadian, I believed that we had a wonderful system: A system that educated me; a system that could not be out-matched. For example, while Europe has always had cheaper education costs, most commentators have said that the society has paid a price for that cost. Today’s political crisis in Europe speaks to that cost.

But Penn States’ situation is different. In their case, their “no-student loan on graduation policy” is not a burden on society. Or put differently, the US states’ fiscal problems has been caused by an inability for the US political class to act like adults. If the US political class was like the rest of the Western World, they would have simply cut government and raised taxes years ago.

Therefore, without significant government help, the University of Pennsylvania has been able to provide “free” education, while according to their website being consistently “ranked among the top 10 universities in the country.” Or put differently, the University of Pennsylvania has to compete with Harvard, Yale and Brown for students. So why can’t the University of British Columbia, the University of Toronto or York University educate students with such a policy?  Just a question to think about.

Nor is the University of Pennsylvania a small institution since it is comparable to Queen’s University. So imagine if Queen’s had the same policy. Or in my books, more food for thought.

Instead Canadian Universities are graduating students with heavy debt loads. Upon graduation, the average student has $25,000+ worth of debt. While, Canada’s student loan programs are approaching $15-billion dollars’ worth of outstanding balances. Gary Mason of the Globe and Mail, further, noted that the National Post series of articles “on student debt suggested that the high cost of a university education is bankrupting a generation of students.” (The crushing weight of student debt, Globe and Mail, Published Thursday, Jul. 07, 2011 2:00AM EDT) Not surprisingly students are having trouble paying for their education plus the additional 5 to 9% charge, known as interest, on top of it. This reality means that former students are not able to save or participate in the economy or society in a normal manner. And yet, the University of Pennsylvania is able to offer “free education”.

Which brings me to my point, the students of Quebec are not stupid, nor are they disrespectful or spoiled. They study for hours as if it is their job. They understand different models for education – sometimes theoretical, sometimes practical. While I doubt any of them knew about the University of Pennsylvania tuition model/policy (i.e. no tuition upon graduation), in their heart they must have known that there was a better model for education. While, I abhor criminal behaviour, the students are demanding more from their politicians. While I detest, loathe and despise political violence, one cannot argue that anyone who is over 40 received a radically cheaper education then what students are being asked to pay for today. Those who are now in political office or who are now retiring got an education because Government’s at the time put debt on the public purse. We often talk about Generational Fairness in our society. Would it not be fairer to talk about a societal partnership? Jean Charest’s Government could start again. Bringing Universities and Students together and have a conversation about the need and purpose of education could happen. Taxpayer, public and private industry could be asked to come into or criticize the model. This model could be novel or basic. It could be a model which could be province-wide, regional or university centric. Either way a serious solution needs to be developed. So if the University of Pennsylvania could do this, why can’t we.

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