Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Montreal Protests.

Protesters in Montreal wearing masks.  The practise has since been made illegal.  Source.
So,

It would appear that there is a bit of a kerfuffle just east from where I write this post.  Across la belle province, students are organizing and protesting the provincial government's proposed increases to the cost of post secondary tuition, currently the lowest in the country for Quebecois students.  As a disclaimer, I will admit that I went to school in Ontario (where tuition fees are higher, but not the highest in the country), and that each province has a different paradigm.  However, I would still like to offer my thoughts on the matter.

I have seen my share of outrage over student fees in the past six years.  As with the changing of the leaves, and the tang of wood smoke in the air, the appearance of the "Drop Fees" movement/protest is a sure sign that autumn has arrived in your university town.  I originally agreed with the original premise of this, but after gaining some experience and perspective, I came to learn that the dropping of student fees effects an equivalent drop in student services.  Nothing else changes, but the student experience suffers.  The problem with this group is that they have given no thought as to how the fees should be lowered, or how the loss of funding can be realistically be recouped.

It is my feeling that this is the same spirit from which the anger in Quebec stems.  It appears shocking at the surface; the Quebec government will see tuition raised by 75% over five to seven years (depending on how the "negotiations" go).  However, this is a 75% increase in an artificially low tuition.  According to the fine fellow running This Geographical Life, the tuition in Quebec was originally made low to combat the trend where only the wealthy and/or English were receiving a post-secondary education.  I would agree that this was a noble and necessary effort.  The problem now is that the former issue is largely solved.  The Quebecois are as educated as the average Canadian (or so I assume, due to economic accessibility), and the University of Quebec has enough branches to make learning geographically accessible.

Now, this alone is not a reason to raise the price of an education.  The debt situation in Quebec is.  The province is roughly $180 billion in debt.  The tuition hike is but a small part of a strategy to balance (or at least, "make less scary") the budget.  It may be a tough pill to swallow, but Quebec is spending in an unsustainable manner, and the consequences of maintaining such low tuition rates could have far worse consequences than having fewer degree holders around.

However, the protesters do not want to hear that.  Though it does not appear that the protesters are just students any longer.  Other groups have joined the protests with their own agendas (separatists, anarchists, hippies), and many appear to be short sighted and lacking in impulse control.  Further, we also see those who appear to be everywhere in Canada these days, people that wait for a large enough crowd to gather so that they can break things.

I will leave you with two excellent points made to me recently.  One, from my cousin.  He posits that if you genuinely feel that a university/post-secondary education is going to benefit your career, get a student loan.  Most loans can be paid off within a year of making a salary that one can earn after obtaining a degree.  If you are going to school for the sake of going to school, perhaps you should reconsider that philosophy degree.  The second point I will leave you with refers to the picture at the top of this post.  It was given by someone I heard on the radio, but I do not remember the name.  The recent banning of masks in a protest is perfectly acceptable.  If you truly believe in a cause, and you truly believe the cause is just, you should be willing to associate your face with your protest.

NM

P.S.  I also listened to a radio interview where the caller (Quebecois) waited tables to pay for tuition.  And rent.  And expenses.  Without loans.  The only other time I've heard of that being possible was when my parent's generation attended university.  I was dumbfounded.

Edit: My cousin has expressed an interest in clarifying his statements.  The un-edited message I received follows:

So, I wrote this long reply to your blog post to have it turn out to be too long. If you'd like to post it, go ahead. Here:

Good cousin, I'd like to clarify my quote and perhaps my feelings on the drop fees people and working through school as well.

Firstly, I like OSAP. I know a lot of people are booing and making faces at me right now, but that's unfair. You'll never get such a reasonable loan in your life. Especially when you're 18 years old with zero money and zero collateral. First, OSAP only charges you up to a fixed amount. If you require more than that, they give it to you in a grant and you don't need to repay it. Secondly, they run your name and specifics through a massive database of grants and scholarships. It requires no effort on your behalf, they simply give you free money. I myself as well as many others have found this out first hand. Thirdly, OSAP doesn't charge interest until you finish classes. That's at least three years (probably more) of compound interest you don't have to pay. Fourth, if you don't have a job when it comes time to repay your loans they fall all over themselves to give you more interest relief. I took a year off of school and OSAP sought me out several times to offer interest relief. It was great. Fifth, when they do charge you interest, it is quite close to prime. Prime plus one if memory serves. Again, very reasonable. Lastly, say your parent's make too much money but give you none for school, you merely have to wait a couple of years or live a year on your own to prove you're not dependant. After that they throw even more money at you. OSAP is not out to make money off of you, they are there to make education accessible to you.

Having established that OSAP is actually quite reasonable, it's a bad idea to work your way through university (I can't speak for college). In fact, attempting to do so will lower the quality of your education. My main point is this: your earning potential prior to university is AT LEAST half of what it is afterwards. This means that you'll pay for university at least twice as fast if you pay for it after you graduate than before. In addition to this, university is a 40-60 hr per week job. If you're working a second job then it's eating into either your study time or your social time: both incredibly important to your education. You need time with your friends so you don't go crazy and learn social skills. You need to actually do your readings. You need to actually think about your topics rather than just telling your prof what the prof wants to think. You need to discuss the subject matter with your colleagues (this is where most of the learning happens). You need to sleep, otherwise you won't remember what you've learned and you won't learn it well. If you're working then you're learning less, enjoying your education less, and spending at least twice as much time paying for it. I know you can factor in interest and you end up paying more overall, however assuming double your earning potential is the bare minimum. Even with a "worthless" philosophy degree you should be able to make $20 an hour FULL TIME vs. 10-15 part time. Do yourself a favour and get a loan.

In terms of those drop fees people, I think they're looking at the wrong factors. School is expensive, but in my experience as an arts student, rent and food are the highest costs. Tuition, books, student fees, have been fairly reasonable for what I've received. Universities aren't there to make profit, they're there to do research. Buildings cost money. Staff cost money. Professors need to be paid, though I've found out they don't make especially high amounts of money from the university, their money comes from grants and publications. If you can, do publish a undergrad science text book. What the drop fees people need to do is what the profs do. Target grants, loans, and provide opportunities for students to earn money (not through waiting tables but through something related to their field). They could also search out ways to provide affordable housing and food. IE: they need to stop whining and be proactive.

My last point is somewhat unrelated but I think important: too many people in Canada have university educations. I've heard this from plenty of sources, including the president of Dalhousie University on Cross-Country Checkup with Max Pointy...er Rex Murphy this past summer. It seems like the general consensus among Canadians is that a university education is a life necessity these days. I think university is great, but if that's our only option then there's something wrong. I've seen the signs of this throughout the past six years in university. My profs and the older generation talk about when university was for the love of a subject. My experience is that most of my classmates, myself included, were in school because they thought it was a necessity for getting a job. No one seems to care what they study, just that they'll get a good job in the end. Hence the glut of business and engineering degrees. It only follows that if too many people are going to school then it's going to be too expensive to keep education affordable. If we're paying for only a few keen people to go to school we could send them free of charge.

Of course, one can't say an educated population is a bad thing, so what happens now? If we make school more expensive it becomes elite rather than accessible. If we make school harder to get into then it will be full of the most competitive people, not necessarily smart people. What this says to me, is there needs to be an alternative. Does this mean college is broken? Does it mean we need something else? I dunno.

I'll leave that up for discussion. What I posit is this: we need to go to university for love of the subject. Not for money. Not for career opportunities. Stop worrying about money and learn something you love. If you aren't interested, go to college. What the drop fees people need to be fighting for are things like better college opportunities, housing co-ops, or community gardens. Heck, they could even fight for better bursaries and grants (though I think they're already pretty adequate in Ontario at least). They shouldn't be whining to drop fees, they're just drawing bad press and fighting a loosing battle (and poorly at that).
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