Candidates should discuss free postsecondary education, say critics

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      Politicians on the campaign trail always say that education is a good thing. Yet many are silent about free university and college education.

      Perhaps that’s because making this suggestion inevitably invites the question about money. What would it cost?

      It doesn’t seem much, really. For fiscal year 2013-14, the B.C. government expects to collect about $1.4 billion in tuition and other fees. That’s only a small fraction—three percent—of a provincial budget totalling $44 billion.

      The fact that many candidates don’t talk about free postsecondary education as a goal worth pursuing—one practical step at a time—indicates two things to Enda Brophy, an assistant professor of communications at SFU.

      “On the one hand, I would argue that it demonstrates a lack of vision on their part,” Brophy told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “On the other, it quite obviously underscores their lack of commitment to a genuinely public education system. In other words, they can talk the talk regarding their commitment to public education, but walking the walk would mean taking concrete steps toward a free, public postsecondary system.”

      According to the academic, there is an ethical argument to be made that “education should not be a commodity that is bought and sold.”

      “In other words, that education and the production of knowledge, like health care, need to be accessible to anyone who wants it,” Brophy said.

      As a nation, Canada committed to this ideal when it ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights in 1976. The treaty states: “Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education.”

      A study released in January 2012 by the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives demonstrates that university-educated people pay, on average, $106,000 to $159,000 more in income taxes over their working lives than those with only a high-school diploma.

      In Paid in Full: Who Pays for University Education in BC?, author and economist Iglika Ivanova notes that in contrast, a four-year degree costs $50,630, of which 40 percent is paid by students in tuition fees.

      Ivanova concludes that “undergraduate education stands out as a profitable investment for the public treasury when all students’ payments for their education—both up-front tuition fees and additional income taxes paid over their careers—are compared with the costs of providing university education.”

      In many countries in Europe and elsewhere, like Algeria and Cuba, free postsecondary education is more a rule rather than the exception, according to Simon Tremblay-Pepin. He is a researcher with IRIS (Institut de recherche et d’informations socio-économiques), a Quebec-based think tank that argues that the abolition of tuition fees is economically viable and socially just.

      “If we’re talking about a progressive way to free education by lowering the fees year after year, it could be a good way,” Tremblay-Pepin told the Straight by phone when he was in Vancouver for a speaking engagement. “It’s not something that you need to do overnight. Still, you must have the objective in your head that you’re going to a free education and not just lowering fees for electoral reasons because you want to have the youth vote. That’s the difference between having a plan for society and trying to collect votes.”

      B.C.’s Green party has declared that “universal and free” education at all levels is one of its long-term goals, promising an immediate reduction of 20 percent in tuition fees.

      “The Green party is really out in front on this issue, much more so with a greater vision than either the [B.C.] NDP or the Liberals have offered at this point,” UBC education professor E. Wayne Ross told the Straight in an April 19 phone interview.

      The ruling B.C. Liberals have pledged to cap tuition-fee increases at two percent. But with tuition fees having doubled since the Liberals returned to power in 2001, Ross noted that education is already “unaffordable”.

      New Democrats have talked about a $100-million needs-based grant system. “That’s important because those needs-based grants have disappeared under the Liberals, but that’s a Band-Aid,” Ross said. “It doesn’t really address the overall problem that we face with student debt and the impact of the lack of access to higher education because of the tuition levels.”

      Although the Greens are an “outlier” in the mainly Liberal–New Democrat contest, that’s a good thing, according to Ross. If their idea of free postsecondary education gets traction during this election campaign, the Greens may “pull parties like the NDP, in particular, maybe back towards the left side of the spectrum a little bit more”.

      But Ross also noted that because neoliberalism, or the belief that the supremacy of the market trumps public good, is dominant in this age, perhaps the Greens might have a different message if their political fortunes were somewhat different: “If the Green party was more competitive, would the Green party ever say that? And I’m not trying to knock the Green party. I’m also trying to say that [as] the NDP moves towards what they see as the electable centre the closer, the better their [electoral] chances get.”




      Apr 25, 2013 at 7:02am

      Lets take it out of the carbon tax,or would Mr.Ross like to pay for it ,after all its ONLY 1.4 billion.
      There is no money for health care or the poor but lots for education and arts.So sick and injured can wait but the rest will get educated,then the students will come from around Canada and all over for free education.Grade schools arnt even free.


      Apr 25, 2013 at 9:21am

      And while we're talking neoliberalism and free tuition how about better pay for sessionals? Sessionals are often people with Ph.D.s and years of experience who labor in the academic underworld for hugely substandard wages. If you're not a sessional this may seem like someone's else's problem, but badly paid teachers are really a sign of how we value education. Give sessionals back their dignity and we will be on the road to a values shift that portends a better future.

      Lee L.

      Apr 25, 2013 at 10:08am

      Well Hazlit... maybe that means they are in over-supply.


      Apr 25, 2013 at 10:28am

      Dear Lee L.

      You're right. There are too many of us. The question is is it a non-problem? You clearly think it is, but I'd argue that there is no way to solve the education cost problem without solving the sessional pay problem. Universities will not reduce our numbers; they like indentured labor. At the same time, the lack of public support for education and competition between institutions has resulted in rising prices. Rising educational costs are driven by an addiction to free market principles. Inequality in pay in education is the leading wedge of income inequality in society at large.

      One way or another there's a pay cut coming your way! Sounds like you're happy about that.


      Apr 25, 2013 at 1:39pm

      While a degree or certificate is not everything, or really anything compared to the power of a library card, I understand that in general educated people are more environmentally conscious, have smaller families, and get better employment.

      Therefore, there is a business case to be made for investing in people's education if you can get savings on expenditures and income from their higher income tax returns.

      Not to mention the spinoff benefits of having more people who can at least in theory understand how to make decisions based on facts, how to articulate and defend a position, how to research.

      But if the Greens want to do this they also have to explain how to pay for it. Trade pays for all. You have to be able to facilitate trade, too.

      Jason Lamarche

      Apr 25, 2013 at 6:58pm

      Real education reform would look something like this:

      1. Eliminate tuition fees for all post-secondary online courses

      2. Open enrolment to every Canadian citizen that wants to attend any BC college or university (instead of limiting attendance based on class space)

      3. Reform federal copyright laws so that any and all material, textbooks can be used and reproduced in full without restrictions for the time it is used for educational purposes

      4. Equip all BC colleges and university classrooms with audio and video recording devices. Allow anyone to view these recorded lectures online in full, without restrictions, and without fees. Same goes for all course content

      5. Allow all prospective Canadian students to enrol in any online class they want for free and empower them to learn at their own pace, on their own time, from home. Learning on demand is needed for people that don’t live near a campus or are single parents or have other dependence

      6. Mandate all BC colleges and universities to issue full credits for anyone that successfully completes coursework from online classes

      If these reforms were adopted thousands more students would complete their degrees exclusively through free online courses instead of classroom based lectures that would leave them tens of thousands of dollars in debt. The saving of not having to educate students in costly classrooms will easily pay for the small expenses of installing recording equipment along with nominal exam testing fees.

      This would also reduce an enormous amount of commuting to and from post-secondary schools which is better for the environment. Other countries like Australia have already tapped into the advantages of promoting work from home policies and have already committed to enabling 12% of federal public servants to work from home by 2020.

      Setting aggressive targets to help students learn from home is good for our environment, great for providing truly equal opportunity for those wanting to attain a post-secondary education whether for personal development or to increase their income.

      Michael Ignatieff famously said “if you get the grades, you get to go”, but this refrain does nothing to help those that have systemic poverty and other barriers that prevent them from succeeding in our current education system that is really modelled after an 18th century school house.

      Jason Lamarche - Twitter @Lamarche

      Free for those who deserve it.

      Apr 25, 2013 at 10:23pm

      Free Post Secondary? If that is to happen then it should only be provided to those who have shown they have the aptitude for it - which would be based on secondary school grades and performance. It cannot be free and unlimited for all, as that would bankrupt our Province and create a culture where we are all very well educated yet unable (or unwilling) to now go to work at the jobs that are available and need to be done. Many would stay in school forever if that was an option for them.


      Apr 26, 2013 at 7:20am

      You got to ask ,Where is the money comming from ?
      1.4 bil..How many schools,hospitals,and long term old age homes(that we are going to need)could be built?Its flippent to say its ONLY 1.4 and sit in your nice gov. office with your great pention waiting.It seems the well off are always comming up with ways to spend tax money.


      Apr 29, 2013 at 8:41pm

      If we can't do free school, at least put all the lectures and recitations online for free like coursera, Standford and MIT have been doing. Upload them to youtube, no proprietary IP blocking nonsense or advertising.

      I finished my computer science degree by taking MIT free courses and am a better software developer because of it since I was able to freely dabble in hardware firmware development and electrical engineering using their courses. Would never have been able to get into those classes in UBC without already being enrolled in an engineering course as they're always full and I was doing comp sci.

      We should also be doing what Germany is doing, fully paid apprentice positions with local companies, for everything.

      D.R. Williamson

      Apr 29, 2013 at 9:49pm

      Education / Training of citizens is the best investment any society can make. Better educated / trained people make significantly higher incomes and pay higher taxes. Just that increase pays for the educational financing in the long term.