Government must eliminate tuition


Recently The Cord addressed the severe problems many students experience financing their education. One student made a plea for students, administrators and provincial and federal governments to focus on “financial hardships for students.” That’s what I do here by analyzing the political context for the escalating costs of undergraduate and graduate education.

The latest data from Statistics Canada shows several interesting facts. Firstly, Canadian universities increasingly depend on tuition fees to supply their operating revenues. Secondly, more students are working: in 2006-07, 45 per cent of university students, aged 20, worked part-time or full-time compared to 38 per cent in 1996-97. Lastly, students are continuing to be burdened by high levels of debt: for the class of 2005, the average debt at graduation for students with both government and private loans was $36,600 for bachelor’s degrees, $37,500 for master’s, and $41,200 for PhD degrees.

My take on these data is that unless students easily can absorb the escalating tuition fees and ancillary costs, not to mention living expenses, they are burdened by huge debt-loads upon graduation. Just to cover housing and food costs many students have to work at least one, usually low-paid, part-time job during the school year. In addition, the high costs and indebtedness likely diminish opportunities for qualified students from low-income situations to participate in post-secondary education.

From a social justice perspective, this state of affairs perpetuates social inequalities. Politically, it is a consequence of policy decisions made by the most recent federal and provincial governments respectively.

In 1995 Jean Chretien and Paul Martin slashed federal funds transferred to the provinces for post-secondary education, ostensibly to reduce the federal deficit and debt. Stephen Harper, with his explicit agenda of downsizing government in all areas aside from prisons and the military, intensifies this policy. Ontario governments have followed suit.

The Liberals and Conservatives, although different in style, share a neoliberal philosophy of diminishing government support for the common good while ramping up individual responsibility.

They believe that the burden of covering the difference between the costs of post-secondary education and public dollars allocated for sustaining the public resource of an educated citizenry increasingly should fall – and will continue to fall until we elect socially responsible governments – on the shoulders of individual students and/or their parents.

Regressive taxation policies are central to this neoliberal agenda. In the last decades federal and Ontario governments have cut the tax-rates on big business and cut income taxes the most for those individuals whose high incomes make them most capable of contributing to the good of all. These tax cuts have reduced government revenues substantially.

Accordingly, Ontario in effect requires post-secondary institutions to increase tuition fees to cover their expenses. No wonder a large proportion of students experience severe financial hardship.

In my view, as citizens preparing to face the formidable environmental, economic and social challenges of the immediate future, we should be enabling all qualified students, regardless of family income, to participate in post-secondary education. Everyone in society benefits from a well-educated populace.

Furthermore, there’s no reason, other than political, why Canada cannot invest fully in post-secondary education to make it financially accessible by reducing and eventually eliminating tuition. Governments could pay for the increased costs that colleges and universities would incur by taking back the tax cuts from big business and the individuals who can most afford to pay.

Sooner or later there will be a federal election and next year a provincial election. Thus, students have a golden opportunity to press for major change in the form of steadily reduced tuition.

Challenge the candidates wherever you live concerning their position on tuition costs. Then work mightily to elect the candidate in your riding who, in the spirit of social justice, supports reducing tuition to zero.

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