How to Eliminate Tuition Fees (and do it right)

9 Jun

Quebec student group CLASSE has come forward with an offer of what it would take to end their almost four-month strike: the elimination of tuition fees by 2016. The plan is based on taxing banks, starting at 0.14 per cent per cent this year, and rising to 0.7 per cent over the next four.

According to CLASSE’s calculations, the tax would net $400M per year – enough to fund a tuition-fee-free post-secondary system.

Of course, this proposal has media outlets like The Sun and the National Post ‘setting their hair on fire’, as my friend Erika Shaker would say. Already, we have the usual erudite reactions from internet trolls and their startling real-life manifestations. Over the next few days, we will surely (?) begin to see more semi-researched arguments that come within ten feet of a fact.

Despite what we’ve heard and will continue to hear from the knotted-knickers crowd, eliminating tuition fees is not a pie-in-the-sky idea. It’s radical, yes – radical is context-dependent – but it’s not unachievable. It’s utopian, and idealist, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also practical and pragmatic. These things sometimes, indeed often, go together. We urge our children and each other, ‘follow your dreams,’ ‘be the change you want to see in the world,’ and to grab life by whatever of its body parts are within grasp. But when it comes to collective dreams, we’re a little more reserved.

Here I want to propose that eliminating tuition fees is a viable option, and it’s worth going for – but it isn’t, in itself, a panacea. It has to be combined with other policy changes and considerations in order for it to truly contribute to the leveling aims universal higher education is meant to achieve.

First, on the viable option bit. There are now twenty OECD countries that charge zero or only nominal tuition fees to citizens. Some of these countries, like Greece, are struggling – but so is the US, and so is Canada, and so is the UK, and many other places that have begun to eat themselves alive now that neoliberal economic policies have failed to deliver on their promises of booming, invisible-hand-driven markets. None of these places got where they are by offering too much to their citizens.

Other countries that fund university through taxes boast thriving economies: Argentina and Sri Lanka, for example, were among the top ten fastest growing economies in 2011. The GDP of Sweden, Mauritius, Morocco, Kenya and Peru grew faster than the world average that year, while Brazil, Malta, Germany and Finland beat Canada, the UK and the US handily. There may not be a hard and fast relationship between how university is funded and a country’s economic performance, but that just adds to the argument for the elimination of tuition fees.

In Canada, we have numerous ways to collectivize and subsidize the costs for post-secondary education for everyone. CLASSE’s proposal is interesting because it places the burden on banks (perhaps they watched this tiny person’s presentation) – you know, the same banks whose representatives circle like vultures, in the subway stations students tend to pass through on their commutes, or in the Student Union Buildings of nearly every major university, offering free swag to any broke chump who’ll sign on the dotted line (a practice which, for the record, should be banned).

If taxing the banks is rejected in our wealth-sycophant public forum – which it will be, because banks will, oh, I don’t know, pick up and move operations, restrict spending, raise interest rates and user fees, or whatever else we allow major economic players to get away with in the name of ‘fairness’ and the free market – there are alternative ways to fund an education system.

Some of the countries listed earlier just take university funding out of their considerable tax coffers. In Canada, we’d have to raise taxes (or redirect money away from the F-35s and other pet projects of the overgrown schoolboys we call Conservative Government Ministers) to be able to earmark the necessary funds for a publicly-funded university system. But not by much: for example, a 2011 report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives calculated that if every family in Ontario paid a tax of $170 per year, we could fund the university education of every aspirant student in the province.

But while the publicly-funded university is economically viable, it does present some real problems for those of us who see it as a democratizing, leveling social good. For one, ‘free’ university (and it isn’t free, it’s collectivized, and there’s a difference, and we KNOW THIS ALREADY, GEORGE JONAS!) tends to benefit mainly the middle class who would find some way to afford it anyway. There are cultural, historical reasons for the demographic makeup of universities, and eliminating fees won’t open the floodgates to poor, rural, or minority students in any huge or immediate way. There need to be policies in place to ensure that students who are underrepresented in universities and colleges are able to take advantage of tuition-free post-secondary education, and we need to ensure that, to the extent possible, our pedagogical instruments, course content and cultures are welcoming to diverse students, and not just the best and the brightest middle class students from other countries.

Related to this is the downside of funding universities through individual income taxes: if it is predominantly the middle and upper classes who benefit from tuition-free post-secondary education, and yet the tax is applied universally in an only somewhat progressive tax scheme, the funding model amounts to redistributing income from the lowest economic quintiles to the highest – and we already have enough of that going on, thank-you-very-much. A shift in tax policy could mitigate these effects, but so could the CLASSE model.

The latter is especially compelling because it sidesteps the problem of some of ‘us’ subsidizing the ‘others’ individually – something we seem to be really uncomfortable with, judging by our (apparent, unproven) contempt for taxes.

But it doesn’t evade another, somewhat justified point of resistance to the elimination of tuition fees: that of the loafers who will surely take advantage of a tuition-free spot in a university classroom without putting in the work necessary to succeed, without learning anything, without ever giving society a return on its investment. On the one hand, this critique smacks of similar ones made of public healthcare – that ‘we’ shouldn’t have to subsidize the medical treatment of people who eat junk, smoke cigarettes, drink too much alcohol, take risks in their leisure pursuits, etc. It’s similar also to the anti-union rhetoric that comes from grudging union members and former members – that seniority systems allow people with no work ethic to languish at the top while hardworking folks hit the seniority ceiling early. To these arguments, I usually say ‘one bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch, girl.’

But here, I’ll admit that, particularly in a society where there is so much pressure for high-school students to apply to and enroll in university, there’s a real risk of deadweight. It’s already happening in cases where well-intentioned parents support their kids in university when the kids aren’t ready, or don’t want to go, or don’t know why they’re there. It’s definitely an issue with varsity athletes on sports scholarships – I can’t tell you how often I hear of the student who “has to” maintain a certain average (i.e., as a professor, you “have to” give them this average) in order to keep his or her athletic scholarship.

Thus, there’s a good argument to be made for students needing to maintain a certain GPA, and maybe even some volunteer work or short placements in industries with labour shortages (or, for some folks, military service, which ain’t my thing), and even incentives to move to or stay in rural or Northern areas which struggle to attract recent graduates. In other words, there’s room to make students ‘pay’ for their tuition-free education in other ways – ways which may actually strengthen the social fabric and the economy rather than burdening students with exorbitant debt and stifling their much-needed spending for years to come.

Finally, the case for eliminating tuition fees often revolves around the university specifically, leaving out technical institutions, vocational schools, community colleges. This is especially a problem given the present mismatch between skilled labour supply and demand in Canada. In short, from the problematic but entrenched view of universities as strictly job-training apparatuses and not civic institutions that produce thoughtful, critical subjects, there are too many people enrolled in and graduating from them. This is evident, first, in unemployment rates of recent grads. In 2011, 7.4% of people aged 30 and under with a university undergraduate degree were unemployed, compared to just 3.8% of those over thirty with the same level of education. Only 48.1% of 30-and-unders with university degrees had full-time, permanent jobs, compared to 57% of older university graduates (and this includes the downward pull of retirement-age people in that category). For 30-and-unders with post-graduate degrees (PhD and professional schools, for example), the unemployment rate was 6%, only 41.5% had full-time, permanent gigs, a whopping 18% were working full-time, temporary or contract jobs (a 6% increase since 2001), and a further 16% had part-time jobs (8% of them short-term contracts). The picture for older post-graduate degree-holders was better, with only 4% unemployed, 56% in full-time, permanent jobs, 6% in full-time temporary jobs, and 7% in part-time jobs. (All of these figures are unpublished data from the 2011 LFS, author’s calculations.)

Meanwhile, we know we have skilled labour shortages in many areas. Anecdotal reports from employers suggest we need more professional truck drivers, more mining and geological professionals, and more engineering, science and technology graduates. Last year, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce predicted shortfalls of “163,000 in construction, 130,000 in oil and gas, 60,000 in nursing, 37,000 in trucking, 22,000 in the hotel industry and 10,000 in the steel trades” over the next decade.

While Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister, Margaret Wente, would prefer to simply chastise people who opt for English degrees when there are skills shortages in other areas, what we need is a national strategy that connects people with jobs while they are still at the point of choosing what to do with their lives, career-wise. We need incentives, not disincentives. We don’t need weird tweaks to EI that push out-of-work lobster fishermen to try their hands at telemarketing. We need to think long-term, not only about the spots that need filled, but the people who are going to need spots.

We can’t remove the financial barriers to university without also removing barriers, and perhaps increasing incentives, to the programs that will produce graduates with the skills we need for a booming economy. These aims can also foster a fairer, more leveling economy. But it can’t be a piecemeal approach.

Proposals for eliminating tuition aren’t simply idealistic or utopian; they are the definition of pragmatic and utilitarian. The latter terms are often used to ferry in austerity measures and justify harsh cuts to social programs – they’re often abused, particularly in the liberal media and conservative political rhetoric. But their philosophical meaning revolves around the good, and the greatest good for the greatest number of people. So let’s be pragmatic. Let’s be utilitarian. Let’s eliminate tuition fees, but let’s do it right.

Special thanks to Rollen Lee, Andrew Riddles and David Tough for the Facebook conversation that spurred and helped this post.

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2 Responses to “How to Eliminate Tuition Fees (and do it right)”

  1. Kevin Sin June 10, 2012 at 5:40 am #

    Succinct and aptly written about the priorities of society and shifting to more inclusive dialogue. Well done!!!

  2. Orlando colleges June 25, 2012 at 2:07 pm #

    In Florida there’s Florida Bright Futures which a lot of people get.

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