Commentary | There is no such thing as a free lunch

We should all pay our own way in university

The sociologist Robert Merton coined the term the “Matthew Effect” to describe the phenomenon where success accrues to the successful, often at the expense of the deprived. This has important implications to our cherished ideal of egalitarianism. In essence, this means that those with a slight edge will enjoy a cumulative advantage and be rewarded with more opportunities – a positive feedback loop.

The Matthew Effect also appears in the debate surrounding tuition fees. As an illustration, consider two students, Matthew and Maggie, who have recently graduated from high school. Maggie decides to go to university while Matthew decides to enter the labour force and work. As Matthew is working right now, he pays taxes which are used to finance or subsidize tuition fees for university students. The tax levied on Matthew to fund higher education is, in effect, an implicit penalty on him for not going to university. However, the penalty does not end here, for the true cost of the penalty also includes the wage differential between him and Maggie once she graduates and earns a premium “university-educated” wage.

An interesting anecdote so far, but does it match up with the empirical data? If we go to Statistics Canada and browse through their 2008 numbers on the “Earnings of Individuals, by Selected Characteristics and National Occupational Classifications,” we are able to tease out the wage differential between individuals with high school qualifications and a university degree across different sectors in the Canadian economy. Those with a university degree earned a higher salary on average than those with only high school qualifications. To account for plausible outliers, look at the median salary across both groups and observe that the numbers tell the same story. The general trend is consistent.

Many would argue that individuals are free to make the choices that they have to, and assuming all are rational utility maximizing agents, Matthew probably took the course of action that maximized his utility in spite of the implicit penalty he had to pay. There are objections to that argument, however. Robert Frank made the interpretation from Jeremy Bentham’s writing that if a welfare state is to govern on egalitarian principles, it would mean that utility – or its opposite form, disutility – has to be equalized among all individuals. Utility and disutility would have to be administered in equal proportion. This is why we find progressive taxes “just.” If a relatively poor man is taxed 15 per cent of his income, then a relatively rich man should be taxed an equal proportion of his income, hence equalizing the proportion of disutility both feel.

It appears that education can be a form of investment that delivers return in premium “university-educated” wage in the future, so it would be a violation of Benthamite utilitarianism to insist that Matthew pays for our tuition. It is not objectionable that a capitalist would take out an interest bearing loan to finance an investment that provides returns in the future; it is repulsive to ask a poorer man to use his savings to finance a non-interest bearing loan for a richer man’s income-generating investment.

I am all for access to higher education, and I am all for affordable tuition fees. But let our lobbying cause be not of artificially low tuition or free tuition at all costs, but a cause of paying for our own lunch and having our just desserts.

Koay Keat Yang is a U0 Arts student whose education at McGill is sponsored by a third party. He hopes that this lack of stake in increased tuition will offer an alternative insight to promote campus discourse on this issue. He welcomes criticisms at

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