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.

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