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Post-secondary policy: one step forward or two steps back?

in To Each Their Own by

It’s the season of student discontent.

In Québec, there has been a steady rise in student protests as the province lurches toward a possible general strike in the fall.

In Ontario, the normally placid students of University of Toronto recently went on strike with their more upstart colleagues from York University in a show of dissent that saw thousands of graduate students and contract instructors effectively shut down two of the country’s largest universities for about a month. York grad students won their demands — a continuation of their frozen tuition fees, repeal of a fee increase for international students, and more — while UofT’s demands will go to arbitration. But the most remarkable fact of the strike was the students’ repeated rejections of settlement offers, including ones their own bargaining team recommended they accept.

Students across the country have lost patience with governments and university administrations alike, and for good reason. Rising pressures around obtaining a post-secondary degree, rapidly rising unemployment and fewer decent job opportunities, growing income inequality, continued lack of vital 21st century social supports like a publicly-funded national childcare system, coupled with greater uncertainty for the future, mean students are no longer willing to sit idly by while governments toss tax breaks and other forms of pandering to the wealthy and corporations, paid for off the backs of lower and middle-class students.

Newfoundland and Labrador has a chance to avoid this — if it realizes the value of what it has already accomplished. If it doesn’t, there’s every likelihood that the red square symbolizing the student movement which has swept across Québec and Ontario will arrive on our shores as well.

The current situation Ontario finds itself in — which quite frankly is going to be near to impossible for the province to solve — is one in which years of tuition fee increases have eroded public funding and ratcheted up costs for study to an unsustainable level. It’s a perfect example of how single small-fee increases create a pattern which, years later, has virtually destroyed the quality and accessibility of post-secondary education in that province. It is a slippery slope down which this province must not begin to slide.

A generational divide

There are, in this province, several generations of university graduates.

There are those who went to school between 1950 and 1990. Many of these are now professionals, including government employees and politicians. They enjoyed relatively low (or non-existent) tuition fees, plentiful job opportunities, summer jobs that allowed them to pay their low fees, and various other pleasant perks of the post-war generations. They are the ones who benefited from a generous system and whose memories are not tainted by struggles to pay for childcare or high rent or by having to drop out every second semester because they couldn’t afford to pay tuition fees. Instead, they are now retired on nice-sized pensions, or are practising professionals, or are sitting in government, and spending their time fondly and loudly reminiscing about all the drugs they smoked and the beer they drank. They can’t seem to understand why people are so stressed-out these days. Let us call them The Privileged Generation.

Then there are those who attended post-secondary in the 1990s. They are the ones who had the misfortune to grow up just as the fishery collapsed and the provincial government launched a swath of ill-fated austerity measures. Newfoundland and Labrador wound up having the highest tuition fee increases in the country, enrolment in post-secondary institutes plummeted, unemployment soared, out-migration went viral. They accumulated massive amounts of debt—if they graduated at all—and then struggled to find jobs in a province which had none and whose economy had tanked. Let us call this The Shellshocked Generation.

And then there are those who graduated from the early 2000s to today. They are the ones who entered post-secondary bracing themselves to be Shellshocked, yet instead — and thanks to the militant and hard-earned protest victories of themselves and those who went before them — achieved tuition fee freezes and decreases instead. For them, post-secondary education become more accessible; many of them came from out of province to study here. Let us call them The Freeze Generation.

 To properly address post-secondary policy in this province, we need a more permanent and grounded sense of vision and purpose — a sense of what the point of the whole post-secondary policy project is. Fortunately, that’s not too hard to figure out.

When political pundits and media figures discuss post-secondary education in this province, each of these generations responds differently. The Privileged Generation — those making the decisions and sitting in government — can’t understand what the big deal is, since their memories are all about fun because many of them never had to struggle to get by in life to the extent many students and recent graduates do today.

The Shellshocked Generation — those still struggling under massive debt burdens — experience varying reactions. Some look at today’s graduates with a sense of jealousy, since they have it so much better. They don’t see what the big deal is about a fee increase. “Back in my day, we had to walk ten miles to school, and then chop wood for the fire afterward!” is the sort of attitude applied to tuition fees. Then again, many of them are supporting children who are currently going through school, and they appreciate the achievements that have been made.

The Freeze Generation responds with mixed reactions as well. Some of them feel a sort of sense of guilt, about the fact they have it better than their parents. But “better” is a relative term. They have fewer job prospects, and the prospects they do have are worse jobs: precarious, impermanent and without the benefits of pensions or stability.

Others feel fortunate to have escaped the worse post-secondary policies of their home provinces. They appreciate the sensible policy regime which brought them here, and hope it will continue so that they can finish their programs and eventually settle here, as an astonishingly high proportion of them do.

Others are locally born and bred and don’t feel guilty because they recognize that a solid post-secondary education is their right, just like a high school education was their right, and a grade-school education before that. They are defiantly proud of their province’s accessible post-secondary system; indeed, it’s in many ways the only thing to be proud of in this province these days.

The above are all, of course, gross generalizations: they are not universally true, and there are many exceptions and variations. But the take-away message is that our perspective on post-secondary education, and its uniquely accessible qualities in Newfoundland and Labrador — like the provincially regulated tuition fee freeze — are in many ways shaped by our own experiences with post-secondary. This is natural, but not a sensible way to approach it as a policy problem. To properly address post-secondary policy in this province, we need a more permanent and grounded sense of vision and purpose — a sense of what the point of the whole post-secondary policy project is. Fortunately, that’s not too hard to figure out.

Post-secondary is a right like health care, not a commodity like gasoline

One of the misperceptions politicians and pundits sometimes make about the system is that they hold the notion that the tuition freeze is a temporary measure designed to help make life a bit easier, a bit of kindly generosity. It’s kind of like when gas prices drop — you feel an indulgent thrill and quickly fill up as much as you can, knowing that they’ll probably rise again soon.

But post-secondary education is not gasoline, nor any sort of a commodity, and there’s nothing at all temporary about the freeze. The freeze is, in fact, an awkward compromise between the old-fashioned — and wholly dysfunctional — approach of allowing only the rich to go to school by making students pay for it, and the much more egalitarian approach of acknowledging post-secondary education as a public right and making it freely accessible to everyone. Either of these two approaches is a policy orientation, and we’re currently torn between the two. The provincial government receives glowing praise from around North America because of its freeze, but that’s only because the rest of the country is doing so much more poorly.

Let’s be clear: the sensible goal is a post-secondary education system that is publicly funded, free of charge and accessible to everyone. Just like it’s supposed to work with high school, and grade school, and health care.

 Let’s be clear: the sensible goal is a post-secondary education system that is publicly funded, free of charge and accessible to everyone.

Pundits sometimes smirk, thinking that they pulled a fast one by graduating with lower fees than the previous generation, and — now that they are gainfully employed in places like government and the CBC and local management positions — can often be heard saying that a small increase in fees is only reasonable.

Would we say that about health care?

No, because we acknowledge that this country’s very existence is premised on the existence of certain rights, and that foremost among these are the right to an education, from kindergarten through post-secondary.

The question is not how long the freeze will last — the question is when will government take the next step of moving toward free education?

It will probably not be in this budget, because this budget is also an effort to address and resolve the government’s unwise reliance on oil and natural resource revenues. But even if we don’t move forward, we must not move back. This province is only barely holding its leading position in the field of post-secondary education, and if it were to give up ground and allow itself to be surpassed by other provinces, we would have lost the last and greatest hope for recovery and for retaining a national edge — in anything.

Premier Paul Davis, in a recent fundraising and election kick-off speech to the Progressive Conservative Party, said that his party intends to pursue a legacy fund to ensure benefits to future generations. Well, that’s an excellent goal, but the fact is this province already has one. It’s the provincial post-secondary education system — publicly funded and accessible thanks to the tuition freeze and recent efforts to progressively move toward the free system that it should be (and already is, in many advanced industrialized countries around the world).

The only question is, will the Davis government sacrifice the last hope this province has to cling to — a future for its youth, and a means to build our future collective prosperity? Or will his government sacrifice it in a blunder of historical proportions?

If it does, the price it will pay will be both short-term, at the election polls, and long-term, in the future of this province.

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