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Liberals tell students free tuition a fantasy best left to Hollywood

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Ontario's Liberal government has come out with a new advertisement that perfectly captures how they really feel about funding post-secondary education. Many young Ontarians have likely been subjected to this advertisement while trying to access videos on Youtube; in fact, virtually every video I have watched this week has been preceded by this inept attempt at self-promotion.

''I don't know how I'm going to pay for my tuition,'' says a young student to her friend as they approach a blackboard which bears a mysterious math equation. The equation catches the eye of the young student, and she proceeds to answer it fervently (and presumably correctly) for an old professor who has approached the blackboard along with what appears to be a coterie of enthusiastic math students. He emphatically declares, ''It is possible! Young lady, you just earned yourself a full scholarship!''

One assumes the audience is meant to conclude that this is an unrealistic scenario, for it is followed by the camera zooming out to reveal that the foregoing scene was from a movie being watched by another young student on what appears to be an old tube television. Presumably, she had to pass up the flat screen TV to keep up with the high tuition fees in Ontario, which is ''consistently the country’s most expensive province'' when it comes to post-secondary education (despite the Liberal government's ''30 per cent Off Tuition Grant'' this ad is promoting, which actually excludes most students).

The young student with the tube TV proceeds to laugh and shake her head at the ridiculousness of the movie scene. ''School isn't like the movies,'' the friendly narrator reminds us. The message is clear, though likely incidental: Free tuition is a fantasy best left to Hollywood. I say Hollywood here, because, let's be honest, the dominance of American cultural products in our markets leave Canadians far more likely to consume American, rather than Canadian, cultural content. Canadians are not just inundated with American cultural products, however -- they are constantly being pressured to subscribe to a liberal (market) ideology that eschews public goods, which has long dominated American politics. I mention this here because these cultural and political influences are likely related.

The government's new ad is a testament to this fact. Even though it is promoting a (limited and inaccessible) government-funded tuition grant, it nonetheless presents post-secondary education as something that the individual must ultimately pay for. This is a mentality that continues to pervert the logic upon which universities operate -- one outcome has been the increasingly prominent conceptualization of post-secondary education as a commodity to be bought, rather than as a public good that enriches our society.

Of course, post-secondary education is free -- or virtually free -- in a lot of other countries, many of which are far less wealthy than Canada. Within Canada, the Tory government of Newfoundland and Labrador has been inching closer to a tuition-free post-secondary education system. The province already has the lowest average tuition fees in the country, and is now moving to eliminate student loans and replace them with non-repayable grants. It appears that, unlike their federal counterparts, the Newfoundland and Labrador Conservatives have yet to become doctrinaire (market) liberals; they are, perhaps, the last remnant of Canada's Red Toryism. Though this should not suggest that tuition-free post-secondary education is an anachronism like the tube TV in the commercial.

It is a paradoxical state of affairs that the purportedly progressive Premier of Ontario only proffers a continuation of the previous Premier's pittance for Ontario students, while the Progressive Conservatives of Newfoundland and Labrador have progressed to the point where the possibility of a tuition-free post-secondary education is practically palpable. It is high time that Ontario students, en masse, demand a significant reduction, or dare I say an elimination, of tuition fees. To this the Liberals may say, ''only in the movies,'' but our response could easily be, ''and also in Poland, Panama, Paraguay and Peru,'' just to name the ''P's.''

Miles Krauter is a Masters student at Carleton University in Ottawa, where he studies Political Economy. In the 2014 Ontario election, he was the NDP candidate for Oak Ridges-Markham. He can be followed on Twitter at @MilesKrauter.

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