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Archive for May, 2012

Students on the right side of history

Watching the drama unfold over the protests of Quebec students against higher tuition fees, I’ve come to the conclusion they’re wrong on only one count: they should be demanding not just a freeze on fees. They should be demanding the abolition of university tuition entirely, On top of that, students should get paid to go to university. The benefits to society of an educated populace are so great that the cost of educating our young people is insignificant in comparison.

Before you conclude that I’ve gone over the top, consider these facts:

Excluding the random acts of violence that have occurred (never acceptable in a law-abiding society), Quebec students have been resolute and proper in their resistance to their government’s intention to raise tuition. Their opposition is based, in part, on a historic decision made by the Jean Lesage government during the 1960s Quiet Revolution. Quebec had just come off a repressive, church-ridden regime where barely half the population had achieved even Grade 6. To advance beyond third world status, Quebec realized it had to rear a generation of educated, competent, and productive young people able to compete in every aspect of business, science, and the arts.

While Quebec’s decision to hike tuition fees by $254 a year over seven years seems reasonable — especially when compared to the higher fees of other provinces — such a decision represents a backward step.

The argument against the students is that they must give up their “entitlement” to low-cost post-secondary education. I would argue that rather than young people having an entitlement to an affordable education, they actually bear an obligation to educate themselves for tomorrow’s increasingly technical and complex world. Doesn’t every politician praise the benefits of education, putting an “educated work force” among the top priorities of Canada or any other country? And if that’s so, isn’t it to society’s advantage to see that every individual is educated to the extent of their capabilities?

Quebec has funded its modest — up to now — university tuition fees with a tax structure that is the heaviest in Canada. People have been paying for the benefits they’ve enjoyed. That’s the way it should be.

While doing research for my forthcoming book on Joey Smallwood, the first premier of Newfoundland and Canada’s last “Father of Confederation,” (Joey Smallwood, Schemer and Dreamer) I found out more about how he had not only abolished tuition in the 1960s, but for a time actually paid students to go to university. Both schemes had to be abandoned in the face of financial pressures Newfoundland faced as a “have-not” province. But ever since, Newfoundland has managed to keep its tuition fees the second-lowest in the country, next to Quebec.

Only North America and Australia force their young people to pay a king’s ransom for an education. It puts them in debt for at least the first ten years of their working life. Today, these debt-burdened students begin their work careers facing uncertain job prospects, sky-high housing costs, and devastating government cutbacks in social benefits. They’ll have to work longer to retire on less. What a horrible legacy we’re handing them, all for the sake of a conservative economic agenda calculated to benefit the rich with tax reductions and reward corporations (owned mostly by higher income Canadians) with larger subsidies and lower taxes.

Most European countries charge only modest enrollment fees for university registration: 165 euros in France ($214); 500 euros ($650) in Belgium, 1,000 euros ($1300) in Germany, about the same in Holland and Italy. Britain maxes out tuition at 3,145 pounds ($5032). EU countries must limit their deficits to 3 per cent of GDP — the failure of Greece to do so is what’s behind the current euro crisis. It will be overcome, but that’s another story.

While Canadians bemoan the advantages Quebec students enjoy, they should look to their own provincial governments and ask why they haven’t done better in facing up to the task of preparing the country for the future. Today, the booming resource revenues of the West primarily involve the transfer of public wealth to private hands as a result of absurdly low exploration fees and royalties. The proceeds of these non-renewable resources should be  directed more to the public good and less to private gain. Why did the last but one Conservative premier of Alberta have to back off from his efforts to charge higher royalties to the oil industry, an attempt that played a big part in Ed Stelmach’s having to resign as Premier?

Equally damning is the counter-productive tactic adopted by the Charest government to try to quiet the student protest. Opening the way to cost-cutting in universities by having students share in budget decisions means only one thing: that money will be pried out of essential budgets like research to fund tuition costs. This approach ducks the really important issue — that of adequate funding for all university operations.

Ontario is equally culpable for having forced universities to raise tuition, followed in turn by reductions in provincial support. In my days as a trustee of a Toronto School Board, I learned that the prospect of being able to go to university is one of the strongest motivations for students to stay in school.

Canada has the capability to maintain one of the world’s best educational systems. It is one that should be open to all who can meet a demanding standard of academic quality. Abolishing tuition and paying students to educate themselves may seem like a utopian fantasy, but the countries that pursue this goal are the ones that will lead the world tomorrow.