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Unofficial Transcript Radio #4

Don’t pursue the degree if you can’t pay the extremely high fee

by David Koch

Student organizers from the group Free Education Montreal held a debate on March 30, bringing together students, researchers, and the president of Concordia University. They grappled with some big questions about the future of post-secondary education: what should be its role in society? Who should pay for the cost of education? And how will tuition hikes impact accessibility?

The debate took place just hours after the Quebec government tabled its latest budget, which announced that tuition for Quebec university students will continue to rise in 2012.

Along with Concordia President Judith Woodsworth, panellists included sociology professor Daniel Dagenais and PhD candidate Eric Martin, who works with the research group IRIS.

Organizers said they had also invited public figures who, along with ex-Premier Lucien Bouchard, recently signed a declaration calling for dramatic tuition increases in Quebec. However, they declined to participate in the discussion.

Splitting the difference

Woodsworth suggested that, since the benefits of post-secondary education are split between the individual and the larger society, the costs of funding should be divided as well.

“Over the course of a lifetime, on average… a university graduate will earn a million dollars more than a high school graduate,” Woodsworth said.

She also noted that university graduates enjoy better health and higher job satisfaction than high school graduates.

“If you look at the other side of the coin, we are here to serve society,” she said, arguing that universities contribute substantially to the political, cultural and economic life of society.

While she did not condemn the government for raising tuition, she criticized Charest for failing to increase subsidies to universities.

“The provincial budgets in the other provinces that came out in the last week – Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Nova Scotia – all of those provinces made education a priority, ” she said.

“They increased funding to education by several hundred million dollars. They increased money for student assistance, and they allowed tuition increases.”

She said that the Charest government had “turned a blind eye” to education.

Class(room) struggle

Eric Martin insisted that the key question is whether universities are public or private institutions.

If universities are public in nature, he said, then state funding is necessary to protect their independence from the sway of the private sector.

He described the increased presence of private business in universities as “a gangrene” that is attaining across the Western world, as research becomes geared increasingly towards the interests of profit-oriented corporations.

According to research by IRIS, the Quebec government could establish free tuition by investing between 500 million and one billion dollars into the post-secondary education system. That money could be secured by eliminating tax cuts to the rich, according to Martin.

The narrowing of reflection

Daniel Dagenais drew applause from the crowd when he said that students should “solemnly declare” that they are willing to pay as much for education as ex-premier Lucien Bouchard did in 1965. Students should insist on low tuition and increased subsidies from the government, according to Dagenais.

His comment was prompted by Bouchard’s high-profile proposal that Quebec should allow massive increases in tuition rates.

Dagenais argued that  universities are becoming too dependent on private research money. This process, he said, is eroding their historical mission, which he defined as the synthesis and transmission of knowledge.

“The narrow definition of reflection that [privately funded] research actually enforces is a threat to the synthesis of knowledge,” he said. “I’m sorry, universities will not be put at the service of the private spirit, [to] produce money for business.”

Higher prices for higher education

Woodsworth and Martin clashed about whether higher tuition would make education less accessible.

“From 1989 to 1993, tuition fees tripled in Quebec,” Woodsworth said. “They went from $547 to $1668 dollars a year. At that time, university enrollment actually increased substantially. It’s counter-intuitive.”

“Increased tuition in itself will not discourage people,” she said, emphasizing that financial aid mechanisms such as student loans must be available for disadvantaged students.

This is not enough, according to Martin.

“Even with these loans, we see people behaving differently, especially people from low income and middle-class families,” he said. “They tend to take shorter programs, because they will cost less in the end.”

“If you’re very poor, I tell you, if I offer you a loan for $50,000 or $100,000, it’s probably not very appetizing.”

Report by David Koch. The Unofficial Transcript is made possible with funding from the Canadian Federation of Students-Quebec (CFSQ).

Music in this episode includes clips from “Radio Nowhere” by Ethnomite Pux. This song is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 2.5

Hungry for more debate? Watch the Free Education Montreal website for a series of upcoming discussions on the future of education in Quebec.

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