Saturday, May 19, 2012

On democracy and tuition hikes

Some students in Quebec have now been on strike for over three months over a law that would increase the tuition in all universities (they are all public) by a total of about US$1500 over five years. This seems a rather trivial amount for a US student, but in countries where tuition is free or almost free, this is not trivial. The apparent violence of the protests, which have gone all the way to sabotaging the subway system, and the daily protest marches show there is some deep issue at play. Let me add my grain of salt on two points.

The first is about democracy. I am all for popular uprisings, demonstrations and marches when there is a failure in the democratic process that leads the government to take decisions that are against the public good. Frankly, I do not see where the failure of democracy is in this case. The law was adopted by a democratically elected government. While Quebec is a province with severe corruption issues (for Western standards), the electoral process seems clean. Polls appear to show wide support for the government's policies. Even the striking students are a minority in the student population. The street should not hold the democratic process and sound policy making hostages.

Which brings me to the second point. Apparent popular support in the polls may be a reaction to the violence and radicalization of the student movement. It may not be about sound policy. But it should. Indeed, the main argument for low tuition is that it makes university access affordable to everyone. That is right, but it is also a gigantic gift to the rich, who send their children much more frequently and much longer to university. If you add the costs and the taxes, giving free tuition is equivalent to a very regressive taxation. I do not think that this is the goal. The goal is to get everyone to pay their fair share in education, for which the future personal benefits in present value are very large. Tuition should be subsidized because of the positive externalities of education, but those that benefit the most from it should also pay the most for it. If students cannot afford studies right now, then grants and loans can overcome that. But the fact that some students cannot afford to study should not lead to a policy where higher education is free, or almost free, for everyone.

The Quebec government is right on this one, and the street is wrong.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Economic Logician, your points are obvious but I glad you are making them. The debate in Quebec is so frustrating, in part because these leftist students just do not want to understand that their movement is hurting their own base. Taxes are indeed much less progressive than the benefits from the free tuition they are trying to achieve.

Unfortunately, they will not read you, in part because they do not want to read English, in part because they think economists are imperialists paid by evil bankers. This is so sad.

Anonymous said...

I am proud of la Belle Province de Qu├ębec, but boy is it making it difficult sometimes. There are so many inefficiencies here that I really welcome it when the government tries to tackle one of them. The chronic underfunding of universities is one, and the new law does the right thing.

Vilfredo said...

I have read up about the situation in Quebec in last few weeks. It really looks like the movement has been hijacked by radical movements that strive for anarchy. The OWS movement and its sympathizers are also part of it. And the way strikes are decided seems also to be less than democratic. This is clearly a minority movement, although very vocal.

Kansan said...

The point that those that make the most out of the education is valid up to a point. Some professions are valuable to society, but pay little. For example, the private return of a social worker is much smaller than the social return. The same could be said for artists. If the state is not willing to pay them a decent wage for the social benefit they provide, then second best is probably to reduce the cost of their education.

And it looks like the strikers are from such circles.

Anonymous said...

I have seen many years ago a presentation about a study that showed the regressive aspect of Quebec university tuition subsidies. I think it was based on tax records where income and university attendance of children were available. And I believe it was presented by Phil Merrigan, but I do not see it on his CV. So I may be wrong about the author, but I am sure I saw the study.

Anonymous said...

The problem with Quebec is French envy. Anything the French do, Quebec wants to do it as well. Southern European governments are very weak in that they easily give in to the pressure of the street, which leads them to adopt insane policies. Just look at Greece. Quebec is similar. This explains how poorly Quebec does despite an abundance of resources, cheap energy and proximity to large markets. A wasted opportunity.

I am glad the government is resisting. It will be good for the future of Quebec, even the cost of disruption are high from the strikes. But one should not bow to the loud minority in the streets, especially when a majority firmly stands behind the government and there is a democratic process.

Anonymous said...

A minority of students is on strike. The others are done with classes or graduated in the meanwhile. And even among those on strike, a small minority votes on the strikes. There is no secret ballot. Votes a postponed until only the hard core remains. And the true intention of the hard core is not the tuition freeze, it is to turn Quebec into a anarcho-socialist utopia. This is pure hijacking, and I weep for Quebec.

Anonymous said...

The provincial budget that laid out the tuition hike was adopted in March 2011. Yes, 2011. During the time since, the students have failed to find support to reverse this through democratic procedures. So they are throwing a tantrum to see whether that works. I hope not.

Anonymous said...

Hello I am from Quebec, I have lived here my whole life and I am also an Anglophone. There are many Anglophones in Quebec, most people in Quebec speak both French and English (one as a mother tongue the second as a second language) . 1. We have three parties that we can vote for the PQ (Quebec separatists), the CAQ (very, very, very socially right wing party) or the current liberal party. Almost no one (French or English/ left wing or right wing) wants the PQ or the CAQ. Democracy here is hard to truly achieve without protesting. 2. There is an incredible amount of corruption with this government. There is an incredible amount of “mismanagement” with money that is supposed to be going to the post secondary educations (billions of dollars). Many people (researches, professors, economists) have found that the tuition is going up only because of “mismanagement”. Overall this is not a left wing right wing issue, this is protesting against corruption. 3. No one is trying to get out of paying tuition. The idea is that they do not pay now, they pay later though taxes. Also seeing as a university graduate makes more than a non university graduate they also will in the future also be paying for services that the non university graduate receives. Here are some interesting sites:
http://www.iris-recherche.qc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Brochure-English-web.pdf
http://quebectuitionfees.ca/
http://tinyurl.com/85o6hbf
http://tinyurl.com/czka9sl

Allison said...

In the US, a state sponsored school has a board of regents which are politically appointed,i.e., they are cronies. The regents elect a university president, the equivalent of a Tony Soprano. Tony Soprano cares nothing about education. It's all about huge construction projects which have kickbacks and huge profits for cronies. Meanwhile, the broke university cannot afford to hire enough qualified professors. Result? Students pay ridiculous sums for a sub-standard education. Politically appointed regents have nothing to do with democracy. The system is designed to serve a small thieving class. Just like many other areas of American democracy, the system is designed to fail. You cannot say the system is broke because it was never correct to begin.