Tuition should be free. Anything else imposes a regressive barrier to accessing higher education

Posted on March 11, 2022 in Education Debates

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Contributors
March 11, 2022.   By Raj Singh, Contributor

The upcoming election in Ontario presents an opportunity to pressure our leaders to finally relegate tuition to the history books, where it belongs.

The upcoming election is our chance to decide Ontario’s position on higher education. Do we want a high-quality public university system that is accessible to all, or do we want a university system that rations access by wealth? Ontario currently does the latter: its chronic and growing underfunding increases tuition fees, punishing those with less income by forcing them to take paid work, borrow or forgo university altogether.

Overcoming this inequality is one of the challenges I face in the lecture hall. How do I design my courses to account for the fact that some students are getting pounded outside the classroom, while others are freer to focus on the matters at hand?

The only way to solve a structural problem is to fix the underlying structure. In this case, we must increase public investment in education. Ideally, we should eliminate tuition entirely. In 1990, just before Mike Harris unleashed his “common sense revolution,” roughly 20 per cent of Ontario universities’ operating income came from tuition. That figure is now more than 50 per cent, which means Ontario is well on its way to privatizing higher education.

My position is that even the pre-Harris fees were too high. Anything other than free tuition imposes a regressive barrier to access. Incidentally, the federal government also contributes to inequitable access. For example, students from upper-income families tend to have more RESPs. An RESP is essentially a federal handout to the upper-middle classes — and the banks and markets that end up receiving those monies. A more equitable implementation with no added cost to the government would be to put those funds into the public pot instead.

Tuition pushes low-income students into loans, and hence prevents them from contributing to the economy, starting a family, founding a business, and pursuing meaningful work even if it means accepting lower pay (e.g., public interest versus corporate law), among other harmful consequences of being shackled with gargantuan debt at a young age. When a student graduates with debt, it’s not just them that pays — Ontario does, too.

And when a student gets educated, the pupil and Ontario both benefit. Many countries realize that education is a public good. In Germany, France, Sweden and elsewhere in Europe, tuition is free or close to it. In Finland, not only is tuition free, but students also receive a small stipend to help with living expenses. Even here in North America, tuition in Quebec and in Mexico is relatively low (less than $1,000 in Mexico and less than $3,000 in Quebec).

Ontarians deserve better. The next election — the first since the pandemic wreaked its havoc — presents a historic opportunity to pressure our leaders to finally relegate tuition to the history books, where it belongs.

Raj Singh is a professor in the Department of Cognitive Science at Carleton University. He advocates for increased and equitable access to university as external relations officer of the Carleton University Academic Staff Association, as well as in his role on the board of directors at For Youth Initiative.

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