The Quebec tuition hike has been a pretty hot issue, one that is talked about and debated a lot. While the discussion is lively to say the least, arguments are often made not on fact, but belief. One of these beliefs is the myth of the Quebec tuition freeze. The premise of the myth is that tuition in Quebec has been frozen for decades, and due to inflation it is at the cheapest levels ever. This is used as a justification to increase tuition, with many exclaiming that when they were students, they had to work hard to pay their studies and thus were able to graduate debt free, while today’s students are benefiting from unfairly cheap tuition.
This idea is based on half-truths, but is essentially wrong. It is true that during most years since 1968, tuition was frozen, as the following chart shows:
We see that tuition was frozen between 1968 and 1990, and 1994 and 2007.
However, the remaining years have seen steep increases, the largest in 1994. Just before the freeze, tuition was increased by 30%, a point that I’ve never seen mentioned in the media. The tuition nearly tripled between 1990 and 1994. And since 2007 the tuition has been going up by around 5% a year. It’s hard to really compare the tuition among different years and get a clear image, without numbers adjusted for inflation. The following shows the same graph, but this time the tuition shown adjusted for inflation relative to 2012.
You can see that the ultimate goal is to bring tuition up to the 1968 levels. You can also see that tuition right now is higher than any year since 1976, except for a few years following the 1994 freeze. In the 80ies students paid about half of today’s tuition, in the 90ies and 00s they paid tuition at similar levels as today. In fall, if the 254$ hike goes into effect, tuition will be more expensive than any time since 1975. Anybody studying in almost 40 years has seen more affordable education than students will see this year. And it’s only getting worse.
You can’t help but understand students’ demands for a freeze – any time tuition wasn’t frozen in the last couple of decades, the increases have been steep and way faster than inflation. I personally think it’s a bad idea – freezes seems to instil the idea in people’s heads that education is getting constantly cheaper, even if that is not true.
But What about Minimum Wage?
Now an intrepid arguer for the hikes may point out that minimum wage has been increasing faster than inflation, and students working at minimum wage would have an easier time paying for their education. There is again some truth to that, but overall the numbers are again bleak. Consider the following graph that compares minimum wage to tuition:
It shows how many weeks at full time minimum wage students have to work to pay for their tuition. It seems that the 60ies were pretty bad times, although one wonders whether it was possible to get a job that paid more than minimum wage. Either way, we see that in the 80ies, education was most affordable (3 weeks to pay tuition), and during the last two decades it hovered around 6 weeks. After the hikes, we will be going closer to 9 weeks. And again, just after this year’s hikes, we will by at a higher level than any time since 1974.
One has to consider that there are only 12 weeks students can work full time in the year (the summer), and students also need to pay their rent, food, books, and other institutional fees. At McGill, students pay more than a thousand dollars just in institutional fees per year (excluding health insurance), a number that’s been growing faster than inflation. Altogether it should be pretty clear to see that right now we are at the breaking point where it is possible to work while studying without going into debt.
Overall we see that even this year, we will be at higher tuition levels than any time since 1975, either adjusted for inflation or minimum wage. The goal is to get to the inflation-adjusted tuition levels of 1968 (not considering, of course, the more expensive university fees of today). What’s so special about 1968 that we have to throw out almost four decades of affordable education? Why is it so important to get back to an arbitrary level of almost 50 years ago, rather than deciding on a tuition level where people can work and pay for their studies and graduate without debt?
Maybe tuition should be increased by 200$ this year. After that, how about letting it be indexed along inflation, or even minimum wage. Students would still pay “their fair share”, paying more than any student since 1975, but the tuition levels would stay at that breaking point where it is still possible to hold a job while studying and graduate without debt.
disclaimer on data:
- I assume a rate of inflation of 2% for the next couple of years, above the recent average.
- I assume minimum wage will increase at the same rate as during the last 2 decades, at 2.8% per year.
- I couldn’t find tuition numbers for 1989-1992, so I used a straight line between 1988 and 1993.
Sources: historical minium wages in Quebec, historical cpi (inflaiton), For tuition itself, I just used Wikipedia: “University tuition fees in Quebec were frozen at $540 per year from 1968 to 1990. In 1994, tuition rose to $1668 per year, after which it was frozen until 2007, when it grew by $100 per year until 2012, making it $2168”