Higher EducationPop Quiz

Pop Quiz: Who should be footing the bill for higher ed?

A Quebec student protester in a Guy Fawkes mask, May 2012. Image credit JustinLing.

A Quebec student protester in a Guy Fawkes mask, May 2012. Image credit JustinLing.

Hi everyone! I’m very pleased to be joining the network as a writer after many years of reading and commenting (where you may have known me as delictuscoeli). As you might notice in my bio down below (aside from my awesome cat), I live and teach in Canada, so I thought I’d start off here with something close to home.

In the last year or so, the question of university funding in Quebec suddenly turned into a hot-button political issue when the Liberal government under Jean Charest decided to raise tuition for in-province students from $2168 per academic year to a little under $3793 per academic year over the course of five years. Note to readers in other countries: you are, in fact, reading those numbers correctly. Tuition rates, you see, had been frozen by the provincial government for 31 of the previous 44 years, with the fascinating result that in Quebec it actually cost less to go to university in 2012 than it did in 1968 (adjusting for inflation). The tuition hike was therefore proposed as a revenue-neutral way for the government to address universities’ chronic underfunding without worsening the province’s already dire finances.

Cue protests. Massive, occasionally violent and destructive protests. In fact, one of the student leaders representing nearly half of protesting students actually refused to condemn violent tactics in order to be admitted to the bargaining table. After several months of little headway, the Education Minister resigned, the student groups rejected a revised offer, and the government passed a controversial emergency law requiring demonstrations of more than 50 people to inform police of their planned route and prohibiting demonstrators from wearing masks.

Just as things started to look irresolvable, the Liberals, mired in other scandals, lost the provincial election to the separatist Parti Quebecois. New Premier Pauline Marois had sided with the student protesters as a part of her campaign platform, and the party even ran one of the student leaders as a candidate for the legislature. All of a sudden, the tuition hikes were abandoned, universities were made to pay back the extra tuition they had begun collecting, and everything was suddenly over. After months of controversy, we were immediately faced with a return to the status quo.

That is, until the new PQ government announced a new massive retroactive budget cut for all universities in the 2012-13 academic year, with another to follow in 2013-14. Insult to injury, I guess, with the added benefit that my home institution is cutting one hundred classes taught by adjuncts like me. I do idly wonder if, when the weather warms up, the students will be able to find themselves similarly inspired to action over the gutting of their educations?

Who do you think should bear the cost of higher education? How much should students be expected to invest in their own educations? What other barriers need to be overcome to make higher education truly accessible?

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it to appear Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 3pm ET.

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Dan holds a PhD in Music History from a major Canadian university and is now pursuing a M.Ed in Higher Education at another one, because he likes to collect very expensive paper. He performs stand-up comedy at venues all over Toronto when he's not busy playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. You can follow him at @incontrariomotu, but he isn't going anywhere. You can also send him a tip on PayPal (paypal.me/dandonnelly) if you like his work!


  1. March 5, 2013 at 1:16 am —

    Ugh. I wish I had a good answer. Is anyone here familiar with free universities in Europe? I wonder how successful they are…

    • March 5, 2013 at 1:30 am —

      It’s interesting you mention that, since there really aren’t as many “free” systems in Europe as we sometimes hear. Germany, France, and Ireland don’t have official tuition, but students in these countries pay between €1500 and €2000 per semester in fees, which actually makes them on par with or a bit more expensive than Quebec universities.

      This policy analysis of university accessibility is extremely interesting (and very long). But the thing I find most compelling about it is the fact that they recognise that below a certain tuition threshold, other factors actually become bigger barriers to accessibility, especially the ability to afford food and rent if the students have to relocate, or even the plain opportunity cost of not working.

  2. March 5, 2013 at 2:21 am —

    Thanks for that. And, yes, people forget to factor in the cost of just being in school instead of working. I love my job and am grateful for work that is satisfying. Humanities professors don’t make a lot of money, though, and it cost me nearly 100K to get the doctorate that made the job possible, which I will paying off for the next 20 years. And while I was completing that doctorate I wasn’t working full time so was not earning beyond my tiny fellowship stipend or putting anything in retirement savings. Even students who work usually can’t work enough to cover rent and bills if they’re maintaining full-time status.

  3. March 15, 2013 at 7:37 pm —

    I like to think the bill for education can be footed by Universities on a needs assessed basis. At my university, hardship grants are designated when students submit photocopies of their bank statements and letters that explain their needs. Although this is perhaps a little intrusive, it does help assess who can be designated grants up to £1500 for students in need. My undergraduate education was thankfully funded by the Scottish Government, and I was then given a loan by the Student Awards Agency of Scotland on top of this. Because I maintained a high academic standard, I got a scholarship for my subsequent masters degree, but I’ve had to work to meet living costs. Now I’m looking at a PhD, the funding prospects look dire. There’s one AHRC grant in my department to cover all of the students studying four different subjects, and goodness knows how many applicants there are for each. Considering that my University recently spent £10 million pounds on an administrative piece of software that cost many their jobs and doesn’t work effectively, I feel the University should really consider running as a business – i.e., one that pays it’s employees (students) as opposed to making bad spending decisions without spending consultations with the student body.

    I am very lucky that my government footed the bill for my undergraduate tuition fees. However, I can’t foresee being able to get my doctorate without much needed financial support, which I feel should come from the University.

    • March 15, 2013 at 8:41 pm —

      But that essentially means that the government must be willing to make up the difference or else the system collapses. I’m not sure we can always trust politicians to adequately fund education to the point where this would be possible. Certainly this is proving to be the case in my system. Given the recent austerity measures in the UK I’d imagine there are similar problems there too.

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