Commentary | Free university won’t solve our problems

We need to deal with education issues at their roots

Our post-secondary education (PSE) system is in jeopardy. Higher education is being cast as a financial investment rather than a societal good, and students are once more paying the price.

According to the current political powers, deregulating tuition is a viable solution to the PSE funding crisis. The upper- and middle-class students filling the ivory towers, they argue, can either afford the increase or should accept – based on access to higher income in the future – the cost of their education.

Classical neoliberal arguments for the benefits of deregulation run roughly as follows: increased tuition entails a decrease in public funding, at least partly due to decreases in enrolment. Increased tuition maintains overall institutional revenue. Decreasing enrolment allows more resources to be allocated per student. A larger labour pool drives down wages, which spurs economic activity and increases employment. Increased employment and industrial activity increases tax revenues. The money cut from PSE, they argue, was actually a subsidy for the education of privileged students attending a chronically under-funded and over-utilized system.

Now – so the argument goes – we could easily take those funds and bolster loans and bursary programs, allowing disadvantaged groups an equal opportunity to receive PSE, all thanks to tuition deregulation!
It sounds great, but what’s the catch? Even if this strategy were philosophically sound, a paradigm shift of this magnitude requires at least a decade to bear any fruit. Practically speaking, ordinary voters are unlikely to hold the government accountable for education in the long term, and those the issue does affect (students!) don’t vote. Any political actor worth their weight in “Drop Fees” buttons knows this.

Although this model purports adherence to the principle that education should be equally accessible regardless of socio-economic status, it relies entirely on budget-to-budget commitments to social spending initiatives that will relieve socio-economic barriers to PSE. Given the nature of our political system, this proposal is a gamble only a fool would make.

But what about other models? And how can we fix our current, obviously ailing system? First, we must all agree on the following criteria: PSE should be equally accessible to all, regardless of socio-economic status; and the debt accrued by students who can’t afford tuition, acquired with the promise of higher future earnings, does not satisfy the former premise of equal access. Simultaneously, the quality of education should not suffer for the satisfaction of the promise of equal access. These are the founding principles of the student movement, and I agree with them heart, mind, and soul.

Unfortunately, the models put forward by the student movement cannot satisfy these principles. Their argument is that PSE should be entirely publicly financed (“free”), not merit-based, and remain high quality. Statistically, those having completed some level of higher education tend to earn more, pay more taxes, and are less likely to draw on public resources and social services. Free higher education seems to pay for itself in the long run. Although the statistics hold true, this analysis is tragically classist.

The playing field needs to be levelled at the entry point to the education system, and we are nowhere near achieving that basic goal. To claim otherwise is self-serving and defeatist; it results in the development of unsustainable models and proposals for the PSE system’s structure and funding. More than that, we need to work to create viable, enriching vocational programs that are not seen as “fallback” plans to university studies and do not fuel an implicit value judgment about the possession of a degree. The lack of a university diploma has become an elitist barrier to workforce entry, and we must dispel the myth that all students need, or even want, a university education.

There is only one way to determine if higher education is the panacea the institutionalized student movement claims it to be. We need to make a truly universalized, genuinely inclusive system. I can think of only one way to do this, but it requires the student movement and lobbies like the Canadian Federation of Students and the Canadian Association of University Teachers to cease patterns of self-serving insularity, and to see the education system holistically.

We must admit that our primary, secondary, and vocational education system is badly ailing. We have not succeeded in creating an accessible, high-quality primary, secondary, and vocational education system, despite the fact that it is largely free.

By no means is this a criticism of the teachers and administrators that hold these systems together with a shoestring and commitment. Those employed in this sector will attest to the fact that there are far too few resources; the resources they have are too thinly stretched. The PSE system does not need the care and reinvestment so desperately missing at lower levels in the educational system. We need to halve class sizes, to feed every student at least two proper meals per day (regardless of what they get at home), to equip our schools with state-of-the-art resources, to develop high-quality after-school programs and in-house social services. We need to give massive pay raises to our teachers and support staff. Our children need urgent attention – and need it far more than those with the privilege of gracing the system as university students and professors.

We must reinvest directly in the primary and secondary education system, vastly improve opportunities for vocational studies, and work to make post-secondary completely free for those who want it (not those who feel obligated to pursue it). This is an immensely successful model, tried and tested by our siblings in Scandinavia. The benefits are myriad: decreased time for degree completion, higher graduation rates, and an overall decrease in system cost.

In order to do this, we need to recognize various aptitudes that guide students on their path through our education system. I can already see the red flags being hoisted up by the student movement. Indeed, as with any systemic shift short of revolution, the upper and middle classes will temporarily be advantaged because their socio-economic status affords them better opportunities to develop measurable aptitudes. However, equal support for and development of our individual talents is the only thing that will lead to a system that is truly and universally accessible, one where people end up doing what they actually like and are good at, rather than what they think they should do.

Adrian Kaats is a PhD3 Biomedical Engineering student. He’s a PGSS councillor, but the views expressed here are his own. Write Kaats at adrian.kaats@mail.mcgill.ca.


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