If you’re like me, an undergraduate student in Canada, I’m willing to bet you’re 100% on board with free tuition. Lots of students are. There have been many, many, many arguments for free tuition in Canada (and those are just what I could find in five minutes). While the argument against free tuition seems to have been articulated less often, it boils down to about three reasons: 1) cost, 2) accessibility, and 3) quality. The costs associated with free tuition are staggering – somewhere in the neighbourhood of $8 billion annually; is shifting this burden from the student to the taxpayer really the best solution? In this post I’m going to take a quick look at what I’m calling the “real cost of education” and argue that we can’t afford not to have free tuition.
So, obviously many tax-payers are going to be reluctant about footing that huge bill. However, education is in the interest of all tax payers: it is a public good, along with healthcare, infrastructure, welfare, and defence. The chief reason we have a government is to pool all our money together and spend it in the way that is best for the whole lot of us. In Canada we already provide free primary and secondary schooling, and though the government subsidizes education, the average student faces nearly $27,000 in education-related debt when they graduate. Across Canada, the debt load faced by students is estimated around $15 billion. Should the generation that is inheriting this country really be faced with such a staggering obstacle to overcome immediately after graduation?
The real effects of this debt aren’t talked about much in the debate. To give some anecdotal evidence, I have two acquaintances that attended university and post-grad programs (law and journalism, respectively). One elected to leave law school to work at a factory (for a relatively high wage) in order to pay off his undergraduate debt, pay for his car and his rent, and to begin saving for a future with his new wife. The other, rather than working in journalism, was forced to take whatever job he could get on short notice to pay back his massive student debt and begin his life with wife and new child. Rather than having two young qualified professionals, we have two men with young families working relatively menial jobs, simply because of the high costs of tuition and the real effects of student debt. I’m sure stories like that happen all the time – whatever the statistics may say, the fact is that the enormous costs of higher education discourage many otherwise qualified students from attending university. Furthermore, pressing debt levels leave graduates few options but to find whatever work they can, rather than pursuing a career they are interested in and qualified for.
The fact is that, going forward, we as a society need university graduates more than ever. A large population trained in science, engineering, and technology will be absolutely vital in the knowledge economy of the 21st century. Businesses will always need leaders and managers…and the fact is that bankers, financial experts, and economists are what has allowed us to achieve the prosperity we currently enjoy. Students with a background in liberal arts, humanities, and social sciences graduate with the will to change the world, and oftentimes the intellect and the means to do it. A university educated middle class has been the key to Canada’s success throughout our history – they are the individuals who drive the economic engine and govern the country. Enrollment rates have dramatically increased in recent years, and instead of embracing this, we have shied away from it. What once was available only to the children of the middle and upper classes because of its high cost can now be achieved by many qualified Canadians with access to loans. Higher enrollment in tertiary education should have liberated us as a people. Instead, due to the debt that faces many students, it has further enslaved us.
We simply cannot afford to not educate our best and brightest. In truth I find this whole debate extremely difficult to engage in because it seems like such common sense to me; yes, providing the next generation with free tuition is very expensive, but what is the cost of not educating them? Students and graduates are tax-payers too, and often, because of our graduated income tax system, they pay higher taxes than the rest of us (though of course, this is delayed gratification). The most important thing to consider is value, and university graduates are invaluable members of society; should we really be taxing them through tuition to the point that they graduate with so much debt that they cannot properly give back to society?
The reason we do not have free tuition in Canada is simple: the majority of voters are seniors. Young people are far less likely to vote than those over 65. Free tuition would mean taking money away from those seniors and redistributing it to those young people. What government would take money from its voters and give it to those who don’t vote? Surely not one that is interested in holding power for very long. Our political system has severe problems, and short-sightedness is one of them – admittedly one that is very difficult to overcome.
While I’m sure I haven’t made the most convincing argument for free tuition ever, I’m hardly the only one pushing for it. Realistically, the burden of proof in this case should be on those who oppose free tuition, at least as long as the traditionally accepted paradigms of “education=good for individual and society” and “debt=bad for individual and society” is taken to be true.
This whole issue leads to two larger ones which undermine our present society and could potentially cripple our future: debt and political inaction. I’m beginning to research those subjects and am planning on writing about them in the next few weeks. If you have any thoughts on those subjects, or anything you think I should read/watch about them, please share it in the comments here or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. And please, continue the conversation about the world you want to see!