Quebec’s tuition hike punishes out-of-province students, rejects spirit of federal cash transfer

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Appeared in the Toronto Sun, November 2, 2023
Quebec’s tuition hike punishes out-of-province students, rejects spirit of federal cash transfer

According to a recent announcement by the Legault government, which has sparked protest online and on campus, tuition for out-of-province university students in Quebec will double starting in 2024. This policy, which will result in fewer students choosing to study in Quebec, rejects the spirit of the Canada Social Transfer—the primary federal transfer for post-secondary education—meant to provide comparable treatment for all Canadians.

Prior to the change, out-of-province students would pay roughly $8,992 in tuition per year to study in Quebec. Beginning next year, that fee will increase to $17,000. This policy is part of a larger plan to promote the French language in Quebec by “rebalancing” the province’s university network. The government also says the policy will save the province $110 million annually that was previously used to subsidize out-of-province students. However, the tuition hike comes with consequences.

Quebec has three main English-language universities—McGill, Concordia and Bishop’s—that service 20,843, 15,286 and 1,404 out-of-province and international students, respectively. These students contribute a significant amount to the economy ($427.4 million in 2019/20, according to the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal) primarily through student expenditures on housing, food, leisure and clothing.

Again, by increasing tuition on out-of-province students, the government has ensured fewer of these students will choose to study in Quebec and likely remain in or move to other provinces due to the tuition hike. As such, students as a whole will contribute less to Quebec’s economy and, in the long run, these lost contributions in economic activity and tax revenue could outweigh the government’s $110 million in expected annual savings.

But what about the cultural question—will this policy, as the Legault government claims, promote the French language? Unlikely. Fewer out-of-province students means fewer Canadians experiencing life in Montreal, fewer Canadians improving their French, and fewer Canadians exposed to Quebec’s culture.

And again, Quebec’s treatment of out-of-province students displays a complete disregard for the spirit of the Canada Social Transfer (CST), which is allocated on a per-person cash basis to ensure all Canadians receive comparable treatment (including post-secondary education) regardless of where they live. Unlike precursors to the CST, this federal money comes with essentially no strings attached.

For 2023/24, Quebec is expected to receive $1.37 billion from the CST. And 20 per cent of the province’s total revenues will come from federal transfers. Quebec is a massive net recipient of Canada’s transfer system yet is the only province in Canada that requires out-of-province Canadians to pay more in tuition than citizens from within its provincial borders (although Nova Scotia also has some unique stipulations).

For example, an Ontarian undergraduate student would pay an average tuition of $8,190 to stay in Ontario, but have to pay more than double to study in Quebec. That same undergrad in Nova Scotia, which has the second-highest average tuition for students, would pay $9,575—nearly $8,000 less than Quebec’s new fees.

Clearly, out-of-province students face incomparable tuition fees in Quebec even though provinces receive CST funding on an equal per-person basis. While some variation in tuition fees between provinces isn’t an issue, Quebec’s tuition hike fails to provide comparable treatment for all Canadians regardless of which province they come from, and therefore contradicts the stated purpose of the CST.

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