Articles in this and previous issues of Inroads have portrayed the positive side of the “Quebec model.” But in light of what we have been witnessing in Quebec this spring, there is clearly another side. I write in early May as the governing Quebec Liberal Party meets in the town of Victoriaville northeast of Montreal, surrounded by thousands of striking junior college and university students – who are apparently undeterred by the fact that more than two thirds of Quebecers support the government’s decision to raise university tuition.

The student leaders and their supporters have often pointed to Scandinavia as a model in their demand to freeze, and reduce to zero, university tuition. And yet, even though my work has presented a generally positive portrait of Scandinavian policies, this is a strike for which I have no sympathy. For someone who operates in a university setting in Quebec and Sweden, as I do, this is not a contradiction.

The reality is that free university education in Scandinavia is one spoke in a wheel, the other spokes of which are policies and institutions that are largely absent – and unobtainable – in Quebec. Indeed, the real contradiction lies in the position of the various faculty unions and associations that support the strike. Those whose conditions would be most adversely affected if the Scandinavian system were instituted here are university professors. To understand this, we need to compare conditions affecting university education in Scandinavia with those in Quebec, as to both costs and benefits:

  • There is no general BA in Scandinavia; all university education is specialized, and thus shorter in number of years. This also means that university programs are not only less costly but, on average, less universally accessible.
  • They are also less costly because, in comparison with this country, university professors get lower pay and – unless they have successfully competed for research grants – teach more than twice as many hours per year.
  • As everyone knows, Nordic taxes are higher than Canadian ones. But less known is the fact that it is the mass of the population whose taxes make up the difference – not the rich, taxing whom produces little. In Sweden everyone who earns a full-time salary pays a minimum income tax of 25 per cent. And everyone pays a 25 per cent VAT. Would the adults who support the Quebec students agree to pay far more in taxes than would be saved in their children’s tuition fees?

The crucial fact is that free university education, like all other welfare state benefits constituting the Scandinavian model, is paid for. There is no free lunch. The decisions to implement such programs result from a consensus developed over time and expressed through electoral choices, not in response to noisy street demonstrations and blocked school doors.

This is not the case in Quebec. Even with the tuition increase, Quebec’s debt level will be high by the standard of the other provinces – and very high compared to Scandinavia. Given the constraints, if Quebec continued to freeze tuition, let alone if it tried to bring tuition to zero, it would be moving not toward the Scandinavian model but toward the model of another country well known to Quebecers: France. In France, the pattern has been to ignore the economic costs of social choices such as reducing the number of working years or working hours. As a result, there is no money to begin to adequately address the deterioration of state institutions.

Especially hard-hit are the public universities (of which I have first-hand experience as a visiting professor at the Sorbonne), with their huge classes, rundown facilities and outdated technology. So you get two tiers, with expensive private universities for those who can afford them. Students at “Sciences Po” in Paris pay more in tuition than their equivalents in sciences politiques at the Université de Montréal will pay with the tution increase. Before taking to the streets, Quebec’s students should have asked their confrères and consœurs from France, who come to Quebec universities in very large numbers, if that is the direction they should take.