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Missing the point of affordable post-secondary education

By: | April 22, 2017

As the prospect of tuition fee increases looms once again, absent from dialogue among politicians and academic administrators is a more crucial understanding of the role of post-secondary education in people’s lives and society.

Conor Curtis
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Debates around which universities' tuition fees are most competitive helps normalize the idea that education is not a human right, argues Conor Curtis. Photo by Francis Osorio / Flickr.

Each year we are faced with another discussion about the prospect of increased tuition fees, further cuts to post-secondary education, and the likelihood that students will pay for the mistakes of politicians and administrators who cannot seem to imagine more than a few years into the future.

A possible 16.3 per cent tuition hike at Memorial University (MUN) is the latest instalment of this near circular story, with additional annual ‘campus renewal’ fees of $450 and a $50 per semester student services fee also reportedly being considered.

As in the past, both politicians and university administrators are playing the blame game.

Politicians question how MUN is using money, and perhaps for good reason in some respects. Take a look at the president’s exorbitant salary, for instance. Meanwhile, MUN argues the university is underfunded – again, rightly so, as funding cuts to the university are a step in the wrong direction (with students already incurring enormous debt while facing diminishing career prospects that would enable them to pay off that debt.)

Both MUN administration and elected officials are clearly capable of seeing part of the truth of each other’s failings. And while it is perhaps a welcomed sight to see government applying some pressure to the university keep the freeze in place, both administration and politician alike also know that the easy target in the void they create through this discussion is students, and the tuition freeze students depend on.

Framing in the void

Once again, the framing has begun, and the old arguments are re-hashed: ‘It is the cheapest tuition in Canada; why don’t we raise it just a little bit?’ Or, ‘How about charging those out of province or international students more?’

Social media is alight with comparisons to the sorts of fees charged elsewhere in Canada, which helps to normalize the ‘make students pay’ narrative and contextualizes, inaccurately, what ‘competitive’ really means for post-secondary institutions.

The point of post-secondary institutions…is to improve the lives and knowledge base of our societies, to examine our past and present so that we can plan for a better and sustainable future on our planet.

It really all comes down to framing, though. If an institution claims to be ‘one of the most distinguished public universities in Canada and beyond,’ as MUN does, then your competition is certainly more extensive.

While most Canadian universities charge more for education, the bottom line for tuition internationally has been set considerably lower by countries who see post-secondary education as a long term investment in the public good. As such, a tweet comparing costs arguably needs a bit of an adjustment.

The arguments that take place in this void miss the fundamental point of affordable post-secondary education.

The point of post-secondary institutions, both through education and research, is to improve the lives and knowledge base of our societies, to examine our past and present so that we can plan for a better and sustainable future on our planet.

For knowledge to be distributed fairly, and for our societies to prosper as a result, access to that knowledge, and the training to use it, must be more than just ‘affordable’ – it must be free.

The case for free tuition has, indeed, been made. What we need now is a fundamental shift from short- to long-term thinking, and an end to treating the service of education as a business aiming to profit off of people, mostly youth, trying to take a necessary step to improving the quality of their lives and the society in which they live. Education is, and should be treated as, a human right. If we restrict access to knowledge on the basis of ability to pay—or to pay back—to any degree, then we also restrict access to opportunity.

That education too often seems like something out of reach for many is a problem internationally, as much as it is locally. Hamburg’s former senator for science, Dorothee Stapelfeldt, perhaps put it best in 2014 when stating that fees “discourage young people who do not have a traditional academic family background from taking up study.”

Reality check

I make no excuses for my own viewpoints here. Having spent years volunteering on student initiatives and advocating for student rights, I have seen pretty much every excuse in the book used to justify charging students more money for education and forcing them into greater financial debt.

I have seen already-struggling students try to make ends meet by sacrificing their nutrition, while somehow still making it through exams. I have seen countless students travel half-way around the world to get an education here so they can make that world a better place for all of us.

Creating new fees is a slimy way of going about taking money from students. Such fees are almost always accompanied by words with positive connotations, like ‘renewal,’ or ‘service,’ which, though they may accurately depict where the money goes, mask the true nature of their effects on students. Nobody is naming a fee the ‘Samantha’s last can of beans fee,’ or the ‘Tom can’t afford housing now fee.’

For those of us who are advocating for students’ rights, these are the reasons we keep fighting.

It is also important to point out that students are not the only ones who have to struggle routinely to make their voices heard at MUN. Per-course instructors, for instance, are routinely underpaid, under-resourced, and otherwise exploited, demonstrating that the greatest burden of the problems that exist at MUN are borne by both student and teacher alike.

Politicians and administrators tend to take credit for the hard won victories of the student movement, and for the most part this is fine, because the end goal is not fame. But it is time for a reality check, because we keep coming back to this issue of either directly or indirectly implying that students should bear the burden of administrative and political failures, including lack of vision.

The bigger problem

The importance of investing in post-secondary education, for economic reasons and otherwise, have been covered so many times during previous iterations of this debate about cuts or increases that it hardly warrants more discussion.

The real problem is that the sort of neoliberal dribble which has infected political and administrative thought in this province like a virus is ignorant to any argument that spending on the public good can be right for its own sake.

The economic analysis of MUN’s benefits to the provincial economy and to fostering the sort of solutions we will need in the future has been done. How government should tackle our current economic situation, that we urgently need to make taxes more progressive and stop punishing those with lower incomes, or how the government’s current course fails to address core provincial issues, have likewise been discussed.

The real problem is that the sort of neoliberal dribble which has infected political and administrative thought in this province like a virus is ignorant to any argument that spending on the public good can be right for its own sake – post-secondary education being one of the most crucial public goods in our contemporary society.

If we are going to provide a service to the public – any service – we need to fund it and not half-ass it.

In other words, give that service the means to do what it set outs to do, and make those responsible for overseeing it accountable (and transparent) for doing the job well. We do not need the almighty market to make a service a success, as the neoliberal mantra goes, nor should we base a service’s merit purely on its ability to be competitive.

What we need to make a service successful is funding, leaders with the ability to listen and then act on what they hear, and some degree of will power.

It is time for our political and educational leaders to re-learn the art of investing in the future and making plans for the long term.

If they will not do this willingly, then we need to do what we have always done: fight.

The Memorial University Students’ Union is hosting a town hall concerning possible increases to tuition fees. The event is scheduled to take place May 8 at 6:30 p.m. at a yet-to-be-determined location. Visit the Facebook event page for more information.

Conor Curtis is a social and environmental activist and writer from Corner Brook. He has written articles on topics ranging from international politics and social justice to hydraulic fracturing and climate change, and was a founding member of The 4 O’clock Whistle Magazine. Conor is currently a student in the Master of Arts in Environmental Policy program at Grenfell Campus.

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