I support Quebec’s student protesters

by Quinn O'Neill

Pro3For months now, the Canadian province of Quebec has been astir with student demonstrations. The students are protesting a 75% increase in tuition to take place over the next 5 years. As opponents of the protests are quick to point out, tuition is actually much lower in Quebec than in any other Canadian province and would still be the lowest after the increase.

Reaction to the protests has been mixed and probably reflects a difference of opinion on the main function of education. For people who see education as a private good, the student protesters may appear to have an outrageous sense of entitlement. After all, if students are the ones who’ll benefit from the education, why shouldn’t they be expected to pay for it?

Others see education as a public good that plays an important role in a healthy, democratic society. If we’re going to let everyone vote and participate in important decision making that affects all of us, maybe it would be helpful if the public were well educated. Perhaps education would help people to better evaluate different sources of information, to understand important issues, and to make better decisions. A better educated society is also healthier and more productive.

Neither perspective is entirely wrong. Education is both a private and a public good, with significant benefits for the individual and for society as a whole. It is wrong, however, to suppose that education is only a private good, and this, unfortunately, seems to be a pervasive misconception.

So, what are the social benefits associated with higher education? Here’s a few:

  • Higher rates of employment, greater tax revenue, less poverty, and less reliance on social safety-net programs (Baum, Ma, and Payea, 2010).

  • Greater democratic participation. In every age group, adults with higher levels of education are more likely to vote than their less educated counterparts (Baum, Ma, and Payea, 2010).
  • Better health and less spending on health care. College graduates are more likely to report excellent or very good health and are less likely to smoke (Baum and Payea, 2004). According to the US National Bureau of Economic Research, an additional four years of education lowers five-year mortality by 1.8%, reduces the risk of heart disease by 2.2% and the risk of diabetes by 1.3%. Cutler and Lleras-Muney, in a 2006 paper, discuss a number of studies that suggest that at least part of the relationship between education and health is causal. They suggest that higher education may lead to different thinking and decision-making patterns.
  • Less crime and lower rates of incarceration. A wealth of research indicates a strong, negative relationship between education and crime. A recent Swedish study reported that one additional year of schooling decreased the likelihood of conviction by 7.5% for males and 11% for females. Canadian and American researchers have reported similar findings. According to Lochner and Moretti (2003) “a 1% increase in the high school completion rate of all men ages 20-60 would save the United States as much as $1.4 billion per year in reduced costs from crime incurred by victims and society at large”. The effect extends beyond high school. The rate of incarceration for adults with some college education is about a quarter of that for high school graduates (Baum and Payea, 2004).

It may be worth keeping in mind that the cost of incarcerating a male prisoner in Canada, as of 2009, was $109,699 per year. That would pay for a lot of schooling.

In short, a better educated society is safer, healthier, more productive, and more efficient, and it’s in everyone’s interest to ensure that education is accessible to everyone. If we agree on this, the next question we ought to ask is, is it accessible to everyone?

If a person comes from a poor family and, for either geographic or personal reasons, can’t live at home while studying, he’ll have to cover his living expenses in addition to tuition, books, and supplies. Minimum wage in Quebec is about $10/hour, which would provide $1600 a month for full-time work. Assuming he works full-time during the four summer months and 20 hours per week while he’s studying, he can make about $12, 800 per year. It’s possible to live frugally on this amount, but what will be leftover for tuition and books? Nothing, really. So, is it possible for a poor person to pay for his own education? No, not even in Quebec, and the fact that education is even more expensive elsewhere doesn’t change that.

Loans are an option but they aren’t without their own issues. Is it fair that poor students should have to go in the hole for their studies? Students who have to borrow will, once everything has been repaid, end up spending more for their education than students who could pay out of pocket. Would we think it fair to have one fee for well-off students and a higher fee for poor students? This is effectively what happens when poor students have to go into debt.

Acquisition of debt may also carry an expectation of high remuneration after graduation and, depending on the program of studies, this can have consequences for all of us. Maybe a dentist wouldn’t need to charge more than a full month’s worth of minimum wages for a root canal treatment and a crown if he hadn’t graduated owing more than $200, 000. And maybe Canadian taxpayers wouldn’t need to fork out more than $200, 000 per year to keep medical specialists in the country if medical education were free in exchange for an agreement to practice in the country for, say, 15 years.

The banks are making a lot of money from professional students, in particular. During my first few weeks in dental school in Nova Scotia, various banks hosted barbecues for me and my classmates. At each event, a representative tried to persuade us to take out lines of credit with their institution. Many of my classmates did exactly this and sank further into debt, because even government student loans weren’t sufficient to cover the entire expense of dental school.

Some of my classmates graduated with more than $200, 000 of debt. I was fortunate enough to have academic scholarships for my undergraduate degrees and athletic funding which covered a full year of my dental school tuition, but I still ended up with more than $100, 000 of debt. In my first year following graduation, with a sparse patient load, I struggled just to make interest-only payments on my loan. By the end of the year, I’d spent well over $5000 and my level of debt hadn’t budged. That’s more than enough money to cover a year of undergraduate tuition in Quebec, but the universities didn’t get this money, the banks did. It paid for nothing more than the sheer privilege of my being in debt for a year.

Some have argued that tuition rates need to be raised to ensure the quality of education, but in some cases the reverse may be true. Some faculties, like dentistry, may have difficulty attracting qualified educators because their indebted graduates can’t afford to work for the relatively low salary offered by universities. Private practice offers much better pay and a better chance of paying off student debt in a timely fashion. According to a 2006 study, a third of Canadian dental students surveyed indicated that their anticipated debt level at graduation had influenced their career choice within dentistry. Three quarters of respondents were considering private practice in general dentistry, but only 12% said this would still be their preferred career path if debt weren't a factor. For the deeply indebted professional, an academic career may not be a reasonable option.

If we want to have access to affordable professional services, if we’d like to save money by spending less on incarceration, less on welfare handouts, and less on health care, or if we want to live in a safe, healthy, democratic society, then affordable public education is a solid investment. It’s in everyone’s interest that education be accessible to all, and it isn’t yet, not even in Quebec. This isn’t something that will be handed to us as a reward for apathy, it’s something that we need to demand. Kudos to Quebec’s students for leading the way.

photo credit: Robin Dumont; flickr