October 20, 2023

The case for free education


October 2023. The government of Quebec intends to hike tuition fees once again. Conveniently, it will apply only to out-of-province and foreign students. There is outrage in the English sector, including at McGill University. They argue that it is discriminatory (because it singles out one part of the population), bad for the university (as fewer of the good out-of-province students will elect to study here), and disastrous for the economy (which needs as many highly educated people as it can get).

The populist government wants to divide and needs an "enemy" to do so. So it proclaims that most out-of-province students don't stay in Quebec after their graduation, and those that do will make Quebec look more "English". They also make the point that the Quebec fees for students from Ontario now match the Ontario fees for Quebec students---this is false, as Quebec is now twice as expensive. While there is a political motivation to the government's proposal, I am much more afraid of the silent creep in tuition fees. Soon, the basic university fees paid by locals will also increase. And before long, people will live in a two-class society---university education will just be for the rich, while the income gap will increase to approach the situation south of the border.

The voices on both sides of the issue are misguided. Let us hit a reset button. Canada is a rich country, respected and admired over the entire world. It has natural resources, clean and plentiful water, cheap healthcare, and a constitution that should be the envy of every other country. It is in a position to offer all its citizens two rights, from the day they are born---free healthcare and free education, from elementary school to university. Free education allows everyone to live up to their potential. In most West European countries, the free education systems that were principally introduced in the middle of the twentieth century turned out to be great equalizers. Families who had never had anyone study at a university, saw someone in their midst become a doctor, engineer or lawyer.

Politicians should not be allowed to play with these rights for political gain. More concretely, the present leaders in the country should attempt to entrench these rights.

To summarize the benefits of a free education system:

  • It will reduce the income gap between rich and poor, and will disproportionally benefit minorities and disadvantaged groups, resulting in a fairer and better society.
  • It permits some universities to pick students based on talent and performance, rather than on their ability to pay.
  • It shows the world that Canada is a place that cares about its citizens.

And please, keep language out of this discussion.


Luc Devroye
School of Computer Science
McGill University
Montreal, Canada H3A 2K6