False alternatives

False solutions

On May 7th and 8th 2011, during the Rassemblement national étudiant (a Quebec-wide gathering of student associations), student associations adopted, by a two-thirds majority, a resolution stating that « the opposition to tuition hike is not negotiable. » The proposal also clarified that neither a postgraduate tax (Impot post-universitaire – IPU), nor the income contingent repayment (remboursement proportionel au revenu – RPR) are « acceptable alternatives » to higher tuition fees. The rejection of these « alternatives » is revealing: the tuition hike does not boil down to a pragmatic question of accessibility, it is a matter of principle, that neither the IPU nor the RPR can not solve.

The RPR – an invention of conservative economist Milton Friedman – is a system of imposing any university graduate with an additional percentage of tax after they have accessed the labor market (whether their job is connected to their field of study or not) and, throughout their working life. The amounts thus collected are then reinvested directly into a dedicated fund to finance the education system.

A progressive measure?

Although such a measure could (it has not yet been put into practice) provide that the share of financing by each individual varies according to their actual income, the fact remains that the costs are carried by a specific share of the population: the people who have attended institutions of postsecondary education. This contradicts the principle that education is a public good of benefit to all and that our universities have a fundamental mission to transmit and disseminate knowledge. Rather, the principle behind this tax is that education is a personal investment. In this sense, the IPU and higher tuition are both user-fees through which the State justifies both ever greater individual burdens and its own disinvestment in public services.

Universities & the market

In a study commissioned on the RPR, CIRANO (Center for Interuniversity Research and Analysis on Organizations) researcher Claude Montmarquette emphasizes that such a system « allows for greater efficiency in the educational choices of students, strengthening the links between labor market and education sector. » It’s the same for the IPU, which encourages people to focus on profitable areas (such as health, pure and applied sciences, engineering, etc..) at the expense of sectors whose job opportunities remain uncertain (humanities and social sciences, fine arts, etc..). In other words, such a measure has no other motivation than to substitute market imperatives for the true choices and talents of the individual.

Degrees at a discount?

One can also expect that this would encourage universities to lower their academic requirements. And if only university graduates are subject to this additional tax, it is conceivable that governments, in order to increase their revenue, would try to issue a greater number of degrees by lowering the requirements for obtaining them.

 Refuse the option of the “lesser evil”

While some praise the IPU, claiming it offers a viable alternative to increasing tuition by maintaining accessibility to education and ensuring that everyone pays their « fair share », we need to question their good faith. On one hand, the IPU is a form, although paid over a longer period, of tuition. However, if one remembers that freezing tuition is in no way an end in itself, but rather an intermediate step in our struggle, the IPU is not a solution. It represents a deterioration in the student condition. Moreover, Québec’s tax system, if the political courage existed to make the necessary modifications, could allow everyone to pay their fair share. But the IPU, as a particularistic tax, is based on the neoliberal premise that education is primarily a service provided to individuals in exchange for payment. Such individualization of education ignores the fact that it constitutes a public good whose costs shall be borne by the whole society.

In sum, the IPU transforms a social debate – which should pave the way for radical changes in our relation to education – into a miserable debate of numbers. It is not at all in our interest to accept, on behalf of false political realism, the substitutes that we could offer the government. Long before the measures in themselves, it is the political principles that underlie them that we question and, on this point, no compromise is acceptable.

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