Conservatives everywhere have responded with the same condescending rhetoric. In Chile, President Sebastián Piñera has repeatedly reminded angry students that “Nothing is free in this life. Someone has to pay.” In Quebec, students are reminded of the province’s massive debt. It is not, however, the students who are responsible for the global economic crisis of 2008. It is not the students who run the banks, corporations, or governments that have wasted taxpayer money and failed the majority of citizens for the benefit of the few. Why should students be the ones who bear the economic burden rather than those responsible?
Tuition fees in Canada have been rising much faster than the rate of inflation. Those in the government who benefited from much lower tuition fees cannot claim that this is just part of the student experience when their own student experiences were much more publicly funded. People forget that tuition fees are not the only costs of attending university; the costs of textbooks, administrative fees, and, for those students supporting themselves entirely, the costs of living, need to be factored in.
The affordability of society to pay tuition fees is not the same thing as an individual or family’s ability to pay. Proportional taxation ensures that only those who can afford to pay do so, and that those who cannot—in an economy where jobs are being cut, personal debts are high, and Employment Insurance is becoming less accessible—are not being further punished.
Rising tuition fees are not an inevitable fact of life, despite what many in government and corporate media would have us believe. Proportional taxation of income, corporate taxation, and a prioritization of government spending that supports investment in the future are actions that are not only possible, but have been implemented in countries such as those in Scandinavia in order to provide free post-secondary education. These countries, coincidentally, are consistently rated as having the world’s highest living standards.
Students should not be denied an education simply because they cannot afford it. If the morality of the issue is not enough, the argument for reduced tuition fees can still be made in terms of economics. Education means having a more skilled, informed, and critical society which is necessary for a healthy democracy. Investing in students means investing in future parents who will raise the next generation. Investing in students means investing in the next innovative leaders of change to address problems of climate change, disease, poverty, and inequality. How can this be done well when graduates are struggling to pay off debt or when those who want to go to school choose not to due to fear of debt?
While attention lately has been focused on the inspiring student leaders and the sheer number of protestors in Quebec, the need for accessible education and an end to the commodification of education extends beyond Quebec. Global neoliberalism has exported the commodification of education to various parts of the world. Frustrations with this inadequate system are being expressed globally. In late 2011, thousands of student protestors in Chile publicly demonstrated in favour of more affordable secondary and post-secondary education as a key part of a more equal and just society. In late 2010, huge protests also erupted in response to the British government’s plan to raise tuition fees and cut funding to post-secondary institutions. There have also recently been numerous demonstrations across the world in solidarity with Quebec students.
The United States post-secondary education system is the prime example of how commoditized education leads to increased inequality. Many students do not consider attending university or college for fear of insurmountable debt, which on average is between $50,000 and $100,000, making them likely to face more challenges in raising their socio-economic status. This debt is sometimes higher, especially when the school is part of the prestigious Ivy League. The fact that the more renowned universities also tend to be the most expensive means that only those who can afford to pay will have the opportunity to reap the benefits that a prestigious degree makes possible. Many graduates spend years and years trying to pay off their loans, while at the same time trying to start their careers and families. With nearly one trillion dollars in total student debt, the United States is experiencing another rapidly growing debt bubble. It is only a matter of time before it bursts, and when it does, the damaged economy will wreak havoc on many.
We have the power to decide our society’s priorities. It is a cop-out to say that free education is not affordable. What we cannot afford is to deny students the education they deserve, or to only do so only as long as it is attached to a massive debt.
It is true that following the provincial government’s intended tuition hikes, Quebec students will still pay thousands less a year than other Canadian students. But if Quebec students have fought for decades to keep their education so accessible, it is certainly not because they lack a sense of perspective; instead, it is because they look ahead to the future.