Index this, Pauline!

If there had been no tuition in 2012, the lost revenue would amount to close to $350 million, a figure not far removed from, say, what Revenu Quebec expects to bring in annually from its new sales-recording modules in restaurants. So why isn’t it already free, asks Peter Wheeland.

Last week, I put forward my case for making education free at every level, something the Parent Report on education recommended 50 years ago. (I you haven’t read that column, you might want to back and take a look, since this is basically Part II.)

Ridiculous! The government can’t afford that! Free tuition would cost $1.2 billion!

Actually, if there had been no tuition in 2012, the lost revenue would amount to way less — closer to $350 million, if you think of the equation as 160,000 students multiplied by $2,168.  Additionally, savings would come from reductions in student aid packages.

To put that in perspective, Revenu Quebec expects its new sales-recording modules in restaurants to recoup an extra $300 million a year in taxes. Wow, the cost of free tuition could almost be covered by restaurant tax fraud alone!

But students get personal benefits from their education. They should pay their fair share!

We all benefit from an educated populace. Students pay their “fair share” when they enter the labour market, either by paying higher taxes or by providing essential services (daycare, nursing, teaching) at relatively low salaries. And if you read last week’s column, you might have realized that this was the fatal flaw in my old POET proposal to surtax university grads to pay for free education.

We already do it: it’s called progressive income taxes. People who make more money pay more taxes, and people who make little money pay little to no tax. Sure, there are loopholes in the tax system, but that’s a whole other debate.

And if you want to talk about groups that benefit directly from state-funded education, try looking at the corporations whose future employees are trained at no cost to shareholders. So who’s getting the free ride?

* * *

Tuition fees discourage people in lower income brackets from considering higher education. It’s not the only financial barrier (PDF) — it’s not even the biggest, but it’s the first thing a kid from an underprivileged background sees when a teacher or coach suggests that maybe they should consider going to university.

The French call it a ticket modérateur — a disincentive. It’s what the Jean Charest government was trying to do when it floated the idea of charging $25 every time you visit a doctor. While $25 wouldn’t intimidate a healthy middle-class patient, it could drive plenty of poor people to skip a visit to the doc.

Tuition isn’t effective in keeping rich people out of university, but it sure works well on the poor. Eliminating fees will send a loud and clear signal to Quebecers that the only barrier to higher education is academic performance.

That’s why the Parti Québécois’s proposal to index tuition to inflation is unacceptable. No matter how big or small that increase might be, it’s a step in the wrong direction. ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist and stand-up comic. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear at least once a week in this space. Follow him on Twitter, or find out about his upcoming stand-up performances here.

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