Tuition debate: slogans alone won’t do

In the debate over tuition increases, the student movement is waging an uphill battle, fighting against myths and falsities partially propagated by the mainstream media. The perception prevails that the student movement has failed to articulate the argument against tuition raises.

In the debate over tuition increases, the student movement is waging an uphill battle, fighting against myths and falsities partially propagated by the mainstream media.
The perception prevails that the student movement has failed to articulate the argument against tuition raises. It contents itself instead with mere slogans and placards, and presumes its own cherished truisms to be self-evident. It’s therefore up to students to make the case and to dispel the myths.
The first perception is that Quebec’s current tuition levels are exceptionally low or, as the mantra goes, “the lowest in North America.” True, they are the lowest in North America – less discussed however is that North America in fact suffers from some of the highest tuition levels in the developed world. Quebec’s tuition is hovering around the average for Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, while the rest of Canada surpasses this by far. In Europe, only two countries have tuition fees exceeding U.S. $1,100 a year, with one quarter of all OECD countries charging none at all – the Scandinavian countries, Czech Republic, Poland and Ireland.
The second myth is that taxpayers would have to shoulder a greater burden if students weren’t expected to. This is a half truth. The underfunding is largely the result of massive cuts to postsecondary education enacted during the ‘war on the deficit’ in the 1990s. These cuts, amounting to billions of federal dollars, have never been recovered; meanwhile, Ottawa continues to amass tens of billions in surpluses. In short, it is not a question of money, but simply one of priorities – as a society, would we prefer to invest in our future, or would we rather a one per cent GST tax cut? The monetary cost is about the same; the social cost, most definitively, is not.
Worst of all is that the whole struggle over tuition fees is a mirage, a careful distraction meant to lure attention away from the real issue at hand: that public funding for education has been on the steady decline for years. As politicians gradually cede responsibility over a core pillar of our future prosperity, they attempt to absolve themselves in the process. They cast themselves as courageous defenders of education, playing on popular prejudices to paint the issue as one of stubborn self-entitled students standing in the way of ‘progress.’ The truth however is that no tuition raise (or none within sane limits) would be sufficient to fill the massive gaps in university funding. In short, it’s but the same old cynical game of politics as it’s always been – smoke and mirrors, designed to distract from failures in leadership.
The current debate, despite what some of the more militant student associations may insist, is not about free education. While it is certainly a debate worth having, many share their concerns over abolishing tuition fees, and it should not be smuggled into the current debate over tuition increases.
The current debate is about the downloading of public responsibility onto one of the most financially burdened segments of the population. It is about making a choice as a society, deciding once and for all whether education is a public good, or a privilege for an isolated few. It is about setting a precedent, whereby future Premiers shield themselves with the undesirable Canadian example in order to raise tuition fees further and mask their ever larger failings in leadership and creativity.
Yes, creativity. Why not look at enacting a means-tested scale perhaps, or at deferring all tuition fees until after graduation, as is done in Britain? Or at making extra loans available, forgivable upon completion of a degree? Or even at indexing the fees to a student’s future salary, thereby ceasing to penalize those – such as teachers, artists or journalists – who opt for less financially rewarding paths?
In striving to narrow the debate to a bitter struggle between ‘students’ and ‘taxpayers,’ our leaders have laid bare not only their lack of leadership and affinity divisiveness, but their troubling incapacity for innovation as well.

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