“Raising tuition fees perpetuates gender inequality”

Readers of the Chronicle of Higher Education may have already read “The Biggest Student Uprising You’ve Never Heard Of.”

On an unseasonably warm day in late March, a quarter of a million postsecondary students and their supporters gathered in the streets of Montreal to protest against the Liberal government’s plan to raise tuition fees by 75% over five years.

Media in Canada and the U.S. have been slow to pick up on the story, although it is finally gaining some attention in Canada, and relatedly, this coming weekend will see an Edufactory conference in Toronto, The University Is Ours!

As a reader pointed out to me, equity is good for everyone and this, in particular is also a feminist issue.  She directed my attention to the excellent Concordia University Simone de Beauvoir Institute, which released position statements including this one on tuition hikes:

[Men] and women do not earn the same income. On average, a woman with such a diploma will earn $863 268 less than a man with the same diploma over the course of her lifetime. Suppose that two students – one a man, one a woman – each finish a BA with a debt of $25 000. Each and every month, the woman has to spend more of her income to pay back her debt. Asking individuals to “invest” in their future asks women to pay more, proportionally speaking, than men over their lifetimes.  The Québec government is asking women to “invest” in their sustained inequality for decades to come. We reject this kind of neoliberal logic… Raising tuition fees perpetuates gender inequality now and in the future.

8 thoughts on ““Raising tuition fees perpetuates gender inequality”

  1. As I understand it, the argument that raising tuition fees perpetuates gender inequality rests on the notion that, since the average college-educated Canadian woman will (at current trends) earn somewhat less over her lifetime than a similarly-educated Canadian man, she’ll end up paying more for her education proportionate to her income than the man. (I don’t know what portion of that delta is attributable to sex discrimination in Canada, but let’s assume it’s some.)

    Couldn’t the same be said of any out-of-pocket expenditure for goods or services? As far as I can see, this is basically an argument that an increase in the unreimbursed cost of anything people might pay for “perpetuates gender inequality now and in the future”. (Arguably, leaving the cost of anything the same, or anything short of making it gratis, also perpetuates gender inequality by that reasoning.) Isn’t that a general incident, rather than a perpetuating cause, of the inquality complained of? Not sure if there are any economists on the faculty of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute, but its particular argument here seems to be a rejection not just of “neoliberal logic”, but of the regular sort as well.

  2. The analogy to goods and services implies that education is a commodity. But I think a good feminist argument can be made that education is not a commodity but a right (so yes, free education would be the goal, and freezing tuition hikes a means towards that goal). Accessibility to education creates possibilities for women (and I would add racialized and marginalized groups in society) that were not available to start with. Accessibility to higher education would then need to be seen as part of a social project. Where the analogy can work is in terms of necessary “goods”, like accessibility to healthy nutrition for underprivileged families (but I don’t see those as commodities).

    The Simone de Beauvoir Institute position includes more than an economic argument about accessibility. Beyond dollar amounts, I think the argument really needs to be about the kind of society we want to live in in Quebec. In that sense, education (and health care) create the conditions required for subjects to flourish in society and aren’t equivalent to purchasing power (even though that might be the way our flourishing gets defined in neo-liberal societies).

  3. Perhaps I need more tea, but I find the argument surprising disturbing. Suppose one says that the value of an education lies in the earning power it enables one to have. It seems pretty clear that in terms of that construal of value, women’s education on average has less value.

    What I find disturbing about this is the position in which this puts the remark “but the value of education is so much more than the resulting earning power.” That is, it starts to look like the many obviously inadequate remarks that say “true women on average don’t get equal X, but there’s so much more than X in the enterprise.” E.g., “women on average don’t get the powerful positions in academia, medicine, commerce, military, religion, but there’s so much more…”

    So now I’m wondering if the idea that education should not be evaluated in terms of its earning results is much, much more political than I had realized, and serves interests I probably want to disavow.

  4. I don’t think the De Beauvoir Institute said women’s education has less (market) value than men’s. It said that women with a diploma earn less than men with a diploma. But they would have earned less without a diploma than a man without a diploma, too.

    I think in Canada women are more likely to get degrees in less lucrative areas (health and education rather than economics and engineering) than men, which would suggest that in fact their degrees are worth less money to them. It’s not clear to me that this is a bad thing, or a bad thing for women in Canada.

    I was surprised at how large the gender income gap is in Canada, by the way. Huge. Fourth worldwide, after Korea, Japan, Germany.


  5. Jamie, is it the case, then, that on average women with the same degree – in terms of subject, school, honors, etc, – have the same earning power as men? Or is the debate taking place framed in other terms?

  6. I don’t know, Anne. I doubt it the earning difference is fully explained by type-of-degree difference. In Canada there seems to be a fairly stubborn gender earning difference all over the demographic spectrum, so my guess is that it would ameliorated but not eliminated if one regressed on subject of degree.

    Still, it’s not at all clear that a degree is worth less to a woman than to a man. Quite possibly they are worth about the same, but women are just going to be paid less anyway.

    This is depressing, isn’t it?

  7. Don’t get depressed. Men have had a huge head-start. We can’t expect to catch up to them in such a short amount of time. I think it’s great that the issue is being talked about more often and on such an international scale. Now the trick is to support ourselves and other women in the media and personally should they choose to concentrate on their careers. Even if they *gasp* have young children at home!

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