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Don't kid yourself: We all pay for the defunding of higher education

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Photo: Brian Lapuz/Socialist Canada/Flickr

I went to McGill in the late '80s and early '90s when tuition fees were less than $1,200 a year, so with summer jobs and some parental help I graduated from my first degree debt-free. For my MA, which I took in Ontario, I worked part-time and graduated after one year with a debt of $10,000.

By way of comparison: my partner went to university in Ontario after grants were eliminated, and when the first round of tuition fee hikes were implemented. He completed a BA and then an MA, and graduated with a debt load (and compound interest) requiring monthly payments of $650 for 10 years.

We know we benefited, and are benefiting from, our education. Both of us have found employment that allows us to make use of what we studied, and each of us paid back our loans. But that debt (particularly my partner's), until it was fully repaid, impacted every major decision we made as a couple and then later as a family. And we still live with those decisions: when we bought a house, when we had kids, how many kids we could afford to have, the fact that we don't own a car, how often we see our families who live out of town. (The other determining factor is the high cost of child care outside of Quebec.)

"Have you set up RESPs yet?" we're often asked. Are you kidding -- with both kids still in child care? And since we have fundamental issues with the RESP system, the public money it represents and how, like the RRSP system, it's geared to the wealthiest families who can most afford to save, we'll be exploring other ways -- once child-care expenses go down -- to save for our kids' education so that they can start their adulthood as debt-free as possible.

Of course, if our house needs major repairs it promises to throw a huge wrench into "the plan." Because for many of us, life is as precariously balanced as a three-legged stool: alter one element (like when I broke my leg last year, rendering me immobile for several weeks) and the whole thing threatens to topple.

Our societies are likewise delicately balanced: educated societies are healthy societies; equitable societies are safer societies. There is no one panacea -- these elements work together. And they need to work well together -- which requires accountability, sufficient financing, transparency and effective administration. So the question is not "health care or education, what's it going to be?"; the question is, what do we need in order to create an equitable, healthy, educated and engaged society, and what's the best, fairest, most efficient way to get it?

It is within this context that we need to examine the rhetorical criticisms levied against the Quebec student strike and the people involved.

Tuition fees in Quebec are the lowest in the country. What have they got to complain about?

It's less surprising that Quebec students are protesting than it is that students in other provinces aren't. Perhaps if there had been sustained mass uprisings in other provinces fees wouldn't be $6,600 in Ontario, or an average of about $5,500 in the rest of Canada. Maybe then we'd have more middle-income families able to avoid the "do we retire, take out another mortgage on the house or watch our kid graduate with upwards of $30,000 in debt" conversation taking place in many Ontario households.

We also need to question the whole "you've got it less bad than others, so stop whining" argument that's used to marginalize anyone fighting for improvements. After Quebec, who's next? Newfoundland-Labrador's fees are the next cheapest (and not by much, thanks to a 25 per cent rollback and freeze a few years ago that has according to the Canadian Federation of Students resulted in a 5 per cent increase in participation rates) -- do we turn our jealousy on them? Then Manitoba? Until we're all equally indebted? How is that a solution?

Okay, fine. They want a tuition freeze. Where are they going to find the money? Or what are they going to give up to get it?

Think back to that three-legged stool. Educated societies are healthier. More equitable societies are safer. These things work together to create a better standard of living for all of us. Rather than kicking out one leg of the stool to "afford" the other two, perhaps we should focus on the real threat that is crushing the stool itself (and no, it ain't socialism!) -- government decisions that lead to the consistent underfunding of public social infrastructure.

But while we're on the subject of "finding" money to pay for Quebec's social programs, let's take a look at provincial funding for private schools: $437 million in 2006-07. That's money being used to "support" middle-income families who want to access education as a private good, rather than putting that money towards improving all public schools so that they better serve the needs of all kids. It would more than pay for a fee freeze at Quebec universities and have money left over for bursaries for low-income students. Or the remainder could be redirected towards public schools. But it does demonstrate that when public money is used to facilitate private access, it's the public infrastructure and the people accessing it who pay the price.

Why are they inconveniencing my life because of their issues?

The point of a strike is to disrupt -- to draw attention to what is going on, and to create public momentum in calling for alternatives. It makes little sense to protest in the middle of nowhere so as not to interrupt day-to-day activity merely to be "polite". When workers strike, one goal is to demonstrate how much the public needs their service and why they should be adequately compensated for their work. When students strike their goal is more nuanced -- these are community members and future workers upon whose labour, skills and knowledge we will increasingly depend.

But more broadly: you think you're inconvenienced because your shopping trip is delayed or because you're held up in traffic? Just wait for the "inconvenience" society will have to deal with because government policies and priorities are creating an underclass of educated youth with fewer job prospects who are tired of elected representatives paying their concerns lip service at best. Dealing with those ramifications will be far more expensive and inconvenient for all of us.

Why you do they think they're entitled to something better than what I got?

This argument is particularly frustrating when it's voiced by those (yes, even in Quebec) who paid tuition fees a fraction of today's, who graduated and sailed into their first job (or were even hired right out of high school because a degree was not yet a job requirement) before wages stagnated and when household debt was not at 150 per cent. They may have had debt, but it was nowhere near what we're currently seeing. And it could be paid off in a fraction of the time it takes today's graduates to extricate themselves from the weight of student loans (after years of waiting tables). But it seems healthy paycheques and years of upward social mobility have also bought some convenient amnesia.

And even if the previous generation had it hard too: why blame Quebec students for fighting for a better situation for themselves and those who come after them? If the standards we set are based on how hard we had it, and anyone who follows should have it at least as hard, what does this say for social progress? Social programs were created because people wanted something better for their children and grandchildren than they themselves had -- a decent standard of living, accessible education, health care, financial assistance if they lose their job, and the ability to retire with dignity and some financial security.

As for the "entitled" question: these young people are risking their semester; in the case of students in their final year of study, they're risking it on behalf of future students. Those students, professors, and family members: they're protesting for other people's kids, for the communities we all live in, for people who are not well served by political decisions that overwhelmingly privilege a wealthy minority. So here's my question: How difficult do you want their lives to be, before you can feel vindication for the challenges you faced?

Why are they refusing to pay their "fair share"?

What, exactly, is "fair"? Is it as much as you can afford? Is it a percentage of your family income? Is it based on the salary you're likely to earn when you graduate? Is it based on what the government says it can "afford"? Or on what the rest of the public stands to gain from an educated society?

Some say that because it is "unfair" to subsidize fees for rich and poor alike, we should fully deregulate tuition fees to make the rich pay more, and gear bursaries to low-income students.

Well, of course it's unfair for the poor to have to pay the same amount as the wealthy. User fees are inherently unfair. We should absolutely pay what we can afford -- for higher education, and health care, and public infrastructure, and a social safety net that is there for all of us when we need it. Now, if only there was some national mechanism in place where we could calculate the amount we owe based on our incomes to pay for these programs that are vital to a well-functioning, equitable, healthy, educated society. Perhaps we could record it all in a single form, and set aside a day each year to do this, to make it more co-ordinated and efficient. I suggest April 30.

Because as we know, the most effective, efficient, fair and accountable way to pay for these programs is through a progressive tax system. So while I recognize the need to keep tuition fees affordable, and the importance of a national grants system like the rest of the industrialized world enjoys, it's a stop-gap measure. If we are truly committed to fairness, the goal must be -- in the interests of economic efficiency and social justice, but also in recognition of the importance of a highly educated society -- fully public (not to be confused with "free") higher education.

Why should I pay for their education?

These are the kids who will be your doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, social workers, health care workers, dentists, architects, librarians....do you get the picture? Even though I have no intention of going to med school, I sure hope the person performing any surgery on me did. And it would be nice to know that the teacher at the front of my kid's class isn't exhausted because they've been working a second job waiting tables to pay off their student debt. We depend on their work, professionalism, and what they bring to our communities to enrich us all.

Of course, there are "return on investment" arguments: increased incomes earned by those with degrees mean more taxes paid into the system, more disposable income, etc. But there are other arguments which are even more substantial: improved health, greater civic engagement and community involvement, more social mobility and increased electoral participation. In other words, societies with better access to education tend to be healthier, more cohesive, more tolerant and more equitable places to live, work and raise families.

Which means it comes down to this: we're not paying for "their" education. All of us, including those students in the streets, are paying for the right to live in an educated society. With all of the vast benefits that brings.

This article was first posted on Behind the Numbers.

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