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Low tuition is the wrong fight

by Archives September 2, 2008

By now, most people will be aware that the CSU has just recently sued the university in order to start a raise in international tuition fees.
No doubt, the CSU’s braintrust had only the purest intentions with their lawsuits. The board of governors’ June meeting was, after all, clearly technically improper; but, while the CSU was right to oppose the meeting, they are wrong to oppose the fee increase itself, and their short-sighted antics risk causing lasting damage to the university, the student body, and the province.
The simple fact is: after enjoying nearly a decade of frozen or near-frozen fees, students need to admit that the current system is unsustainable.
This year, Concordia will post a $14 million deficit – its largest in more than a decade. Granted, some of the responsibility for this lies with the provincial government, which has juggled its funding formula to the detriment of undergraduate-focused universities. That said, even the best-run company would be challenged by a combination of frozen revenues and rising costs.
At the same time, Concordia’s unions are lining up to the trough, demanding increased wages and benefits from a university already bleeding red ink.
With the university so deeply in debt (half-a-billion dollars, give or take), either revenue must go up, or cuts will have to be made. If cuts do come, you can bet it won’t be the faculty that pays the price, protected as they are by ironclad contracts and unions with real bargaining power. No, far more likely, any costs will be borne by students in the form of reduced class offerings, increased class-sizes, and reductions in TA/RA openings.
“But wait,” the CSU will say. “Why shouldn’t the government pay the costs for us?”
Well, for two reasons.
First, because they won’t.
Governments from B.C. to Ontario to Quebec have increasingly come to realize that tuition freezes are unsustainable – that they are money-pits which, at best, delay fee increases, or at worst, exacerbate them. Ironically, student politicians understand this too. They know fees must eventually go up. But, like all good politicians, their strategy is to play for time, hoping to be gone from the office by the time the hammer comes down.
The second reason governments shouldn’t pay is that asking governments to pay is really asking taxpayers to pay, and asking taxpayers to pay is itself just another way of asking students to pay, but later, and with interest.
Students are taxpayers too, after all, or will be. For most, a university education is a ticket to a career, a higher income, and, sadly, a higher tax bracket; and, although this might not hold true for the placard-waving, patchouli-oil crowd, most students will recognize that a few years of higher fees are infinitely preferable to a few decades of higher taxes.
There is, of course, one group for whom this argument is not accurate. And it is no coincidence that the CSU has fought so hard against a tax on international students. These students, who are free to return home after graduation, are immune from the obligations of domestic citizenship and taxation, and have no incentive not to game the system for all that they can scrounge during their time here.
All arguments notwithstanding, the CSU will no doubt spend the next eight months trying to argue that students are victims of the “system,” and that low or frozen fees are in our interest.
The CSU will argue that higher fees discriminate against poorer students. Twaddle. Higher tuition paid by richer students leaves more money to subsidy the fees of their less-well-off colleagues.
Take Harvard, one of the more expensive of the Ivy League, where the $40,000 paid by the majority of students is used to provide a wealth of scholarships and bursaries designed to ensure that any qualified applicant can attend, regardless of financial situation.
The CSU will argue that higher fees lower accessibility. Bunk. In
2002, after B.C. deregulated tuition, full-time student enrollment jumped by more than seven per cent, despite an increase in fees of more than 22 per cent.
Accessibility is a ruse. There are no shortages of interested, qualified students. The only thing that limits enrollment is the number allowed to enroll, and that is only limited by students’ limited contribution to costs.
The CSU will argue that lower tuition is more “socially just” (or, at their most mendacious, that free education is a “right”). But if social justice is your cause-du-jour, why not spend the money where it could really make a difference: social housing, food banks or charities dedicated to fuzzy seal cubs?
The argument for low tuition, at the end of the day amounts to a demand that money better spent either by those who earned it or those who need it be used instead to fund students’ future incomes.
Enough posters shouting for a new freeze. Enough marches that few attend and for which fewer care. Enough wasted paper, energy and hot air.
Concordia’s low tuition campaign is unsustainable. Better that we should realize it.

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