Opinion: Tuition scheme bad for universities, worse for students

While McGill might be harmed, I’m more worried about those who can’t afford the higher fees and the effect on Canada’s education system.

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After the Quebec government announced it would double out-of-province tuition fees for universities in the province, criticisms of the policy have largely focused on its impact on English universities and communities in Quebec. This is, of course, a valid concern, and it will be challenging for schools like Concordia and McGill to continue recruiting students if this policy is implemented. However, I believe the stakes are much higher than these provincial-level discussions: This decision has the potential to destabilize one of the most important features of Canadian postsecondary education on a national level.

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One of the best things about Canadian universities is that more prestigious schools do not typically cost much more than lower-ranked schools. Regardless of whether you go to a small, teaching-focused school or a top-tier research institution, the tuition will likely be similar, and it is almost always under $10,000 per year. This leads to an education system that avoids a lot of the class discrimination rampant in countries like the United States, where prestigious schools can cost significantly more than others.

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In the U.S. system, qualified students often end up attending less prestigious schools simply because they can’t afford higher tuition fees; it is effectively possible to “buy” a better education. While Canada may still have issues with private high schools and other institutions that allow people with money to get ahead more easily, our university system has, up until now, managed to keep costs relatively similar.

However, Quebec’s proposed decision disrupts this entire system. It is crucial to recognize that McGill is consistently one of the highest-ranked schools in CanadaWhile some are concerned that the new tuition might harm McGill, I’m more concerned that McGill will end up being just fine; the people who will hurt the most are those who will no longer be able to attend because they can’t afford it.

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The decision is essentially locking working-class and many middle-class students out of Canada’s most prestigious university, meaning the university will see an influx of wealthier students. This influx will further exacerbate income inequality and class division in Canada as one of its strongest universities becomes a space reserved for the country’s wealthy elite. The idea of paying $17,000 per year for tuition is enough to immediately disqualify many from even considering McGill as a viable option.  

This is not to undersell the value of an education at a lower-ranked school. Before attending McGill for my PhD, I completed my undergraduate education at Brock University, a school that typically falls on the lower end of university rankings. I consider the education that I got at Brock to be phenomenal, and on par with what anyone at McGill learns.

However, I can’t deny that having a McGill PhD provides opportunities that Brock simply couldn’t. Even if the actual in-class education is not particularly different, the resources outside of the classroom are. McGill’s name opens doors, and they have better access to networking events, career resources and industry connections than many other schools. The idea that these things, as of next year, might be something reserved for wealthy students who can afford the new tuition fee is really concerning.

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While I do recognize the fear that this new tuition fee might harm anglophone institutions and communities in Quebec, I think that this focus needs to be accompanied by a recognition of the Canada-wide ripple effect that will come from allowing more prestigious schools to charge more tuition. One of the best things about Canada is the equality in tuition among schools regardless of their prestige or ranking; choosing to double the cost of the country’s most prestigious school has dangerous implications that threaten class equality in Canadian education on a national scale.

Steven Greenwood is a PhD graduate from McGill, where he currently teaches in the English department, and is also a research fellow at Concordia.

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