The ongoing three-month strike by Quebec university students over tuition increases has sparked near-unanimous outrage from members of Canada’s mainstream commentariat — and not just over the violence, but over the very content of what students are demanding.
What do these spoiled rich kids have to protest against, the pundits wail, when already they pay the lowest tuition in Canada, and Canadian tuition in general is but a fraction of that in the United States? They are unrealistic. They feel entitled. In Andrew Coyne’s words: “The student leaders, at this point, are absolutely delusional in their sense of their importance to the universe.”
What is rarely included in this chorus of condemnation is an honest look at higher education elsewhere in the world. Dozens of countries offer free post-secondary education — not just in wealthy Northern Europe, but also in Cuba, Sri Lanka, and Botswana. In some cases, they share these benefits with international students as well as citizens, and even offer cost-of-living allowances. There is nothing in the Canadian experience that would make it impossible for us to gradually implement such practices. It is simply a matter of using tax dollars to spread the costs around — something we already do with K-12 education.
Some object that students are the ones who primarily benefit from their education, and therefore they should be the ones to pay. But this argument fails to acknowledge that society as a whole gains from a highly educated population.
However, if people decide that students should be made to sacrifice something for the benefit of a higher education, perhaps conditions could be placed on free tuition. For instance, graduates could have their student debts wiped clean in return for working a certain number of years in whatever jurisdiction offers them the deal. The number of years required could even be reduced if the student agrees to spend them working somewhere deemed especially important — such as remote rural communities or perhaps the developing world.
Another common objection to free tuition is that it is highly regressive. Most university students come from middle- and upper-class backgrounds, this argument runs. To divert society’s resources for their benefit, by reducing or eliminating tuition fees, only increases the problem of inequality.
In a way this is true, but we must realize that it becomes less true as the cost of education drops. Tuition fees are a barrier to higher education — especially for those with low incomes. They may not be the only barrier, or even the most important. Some evidence shows that parental influence and early formative experiences play a larger role in determining whether or not an individual will attend university. But while tuition fees may not be the whole problem, they are certainly a substantial part of it. Any comprehensive program to make post-secondary education more accessible for everyone — regardless of one’s finances — ought to include the phasing out of tuition fees.
Equality of opportunity is what it all comes down to. In the current war of words over the Quebec student strike — over the behaviour of that “self-serving, self-satisfied, self-dramatizing collection of idiots” (quoting the inexhaustible Andrew Coyne once again) — I hope that this basic principle does not get buried.