The myth of the Quebec tuition Freeze

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”

9 thoughts on “The myth of the Quebec tuition Freeze

  1. One of the problems with a tuition freeze is that it places an unfair burden on a particular cohort of students instead of spreading it out. According to your graphs, the cohort of students between 1968-1990 and 1995-2007 benefitted from constant tuition costs regardless of inflation. When the budget situation becomes untenable, then tuition is jacked up and arbitrarily punishing the students of those years. If tuitions tracked the cost of rising education cost, then it could be fairly shared across all cohorts of students. This sort of freeze and increase in periodic cycles benefits those in the frozen years, and then to bring costs back in line, the increases are borne by other students in future years. Given that, the students who are pushing hard for a tuition freeze are being selfish because students 5 years down the road will pay for their benefit with significantly higher costs. It’s kicking the can down the road.

  2. do you take into account the « frais afférents» in your calculations ? i.e. the obligatory institutional payment, which are used to pay (for example) for the sport infrastructure, computers, etc. These costs are variable between universities and are increasing since they have been unregulated. I tried to find some data about them but i failed, i know the average of the frais afférents is about 600$.

    • No. But I did mention that at McGill, these fees are more than a thousand Dollars (around 1200$?). On the other hand, I do not take into account tuition tax credits (which unfortunately may not help you in the year you are studying, but only years later), as well as possible bursaries. So yes this is a simplification, but it should show that the education costs right now are not cheaper compared to the last couple of decades. Note that I only use three data sources – tuition without fees, inflation (cpi), and minimum wage – all very easily measurable units. These numbers are easily verified and there’s no cherry picking, I show a time frame of 50 years, when making an argument about the last 40 years. The numbers should still support the basic premise of the post.

  3. Wonderful work with the graphs. I don’t think it supports all of your conclusions (some are, after all, opinions), but the facts stand on their own.

    I can quote you: “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 idea is based on half-truths, but is essentially wrong.”

    Actually, your graph shows that the idea is almost exactly correct, if we’re choosing 1968 as a baseline. (Until you include institutional fees, maybe.) Wasn’t this the government’s position in the first place?

    I say this with a dispassionate chuckle. I’m not personally involved in the tuition debate. I think the graphs support your position more than they sabotages it, and I think everybody should stare at them and understand them because they’re objective and relevant and they tell a story free of rhetoric.

    My thoughts:

    * The government has promised to create a commission including students to comb over institutional fees, so those ought to drop somewhat during the tuition increases. (This doesn’t affect your graphs but it has affected–and presumably will affect–students’ wallets.)
    * To me, the graphs prove that minimum wage is a red herring. We’d expect the minimum-wage-weeks graph to look the same as the tuition one (because minimum wage should increase with inflation), and it does. Now there’s one thing less for everybody to talk about :). Awesome.
    * 1968 is a funny starting year because it comes right after CEGEP was introduced. I’m not up on my history, but I imagine CEGEP made the tuition-cost of post-secondary education decrease by 25% (because CEGEP is free so we only need three years of university now, not four). If I’m right, the tuition-cost of a degree dropped from $14,000 in 1966 to $3,000 in 1989 (in 2012 dollars) and in 2019 it’ll be up to $10,500.

    This is, to me, the obvious flaw in relying on history: anybody can make an argument by turning the clock back far enough. (Did anybody got paid for drawing on cave walls? I bet cave-lessons cost $0.) These graphs let people (pro- and anti-hike alike) see what they want to see.

    Thank you for creating these graphs. I hope they’ll convince us to discuss where we’re going instead of where we’ve been.

    • Thank you for your comments. One point I’d like to make is that I wrote, as you quoted me, that there is a belief that “due to inflation it (tuition) is at the cheapest levels ever”, a belief which I aim to show is wrong. Even if you pick 1968 as a baseline, than what you find is that the tuition in 2018 won’t be the most expensive ever. However, that was not the claim. The claim is that during most of the last 30 years, tuition was cheaper than today.

      • Wow, I totally misread. Yes, your premise is right and I’m an idiot :).

        I had totally projected the government’s message: something like, “tuition has been too cheap for the past 30 years, and now we can’t pay the bills.” I think that’s where the discussion has to go for us to find a solution that benefits Quebec, and I think your blog post takes us part of the way there.

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  5. While your graphs are not wrong, your interpretation of the data is. The problem isn’t where the lines are, the problem is the “area under the curve”. The years between 1975-1995 had amassed an enormous “deficit” (I say deficit only in the context of education costs, the implication is that we were funneling money from other programs to cover the costs) that eventually needs to be paid off if we want a sustainable independent system. If we believe education is important, it has to be a self-sustaining system, it cannot be dependent on other parts of our budget– otherwise we end up having to cut funding of education if things get bad due to other economic issues. Nobody wants that to happen, so what we need is a way to balance the curve and make the system sustainable again. The only way to balance a deficit is to increase funding, and again, if we want an insulated system, we have to use tuition fees to fill that void.

    After we pay off that deficit from 75-95, I am all for another “freeze” of sorts, though I think the government should increase tuition at the rate of inflation so that we can keep up with costs. We will need a few years of these increased rates to get to that point, though.

    • You’re not giving an interpretation of the data, but rather providing an opinion about how education should be funded. Just like any other social program, education is funded mostly by taxes. The system is sustainable if total spending and income are in balance, not necessairly if user fees and spending of individual programs are individually balanced — and education will never be paid completely by user fees, otherwise the tuition would be around 30K/year.

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