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Let's make post-secondary education free for everyone

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CFS Chair Bilan Arte

For as long as I've been a student, I've heard experts, politicians and even some of my own classmates say that "free tuition" is a bad idea.

I've been told that free tuition is "wrong", or "self-interested." Why? Because those who get to college or university are already privileged. Why should our society subsidize them?

I've never understood this argument, but that may have something to do with my own life story. My parents were refugees from Somalia, and I am a first-generation university student in Canada.

After I graduated high school I got rid of my entrance letters to universities I had applied to. I started a full-time job that summer and took over the role as primary breadwinner for our family. I was resigned to the reality that I could never afford post-secondary education, even with public loans.

A year later I won a full scholarship to attend the University of Manitoba and my whole family moved cities so I could attend. Even with this scholarship, I worked while in school, because scholarships only cover tuition. To pay the bills I worked at a full-time job while carrying a full course load and keeping my grades up to maintain my scholarship.

I spent many days going without breakfast or lunch, because my family's budget was stretched too far. Going to university did not feel like a "privileged" experience for me.

Of course, those who oppose free tuition would likely consider me among the "deserving poor." Students like me deserve assistance, they'd say, while others who can afford to pay more must do so. In my case, for them, the public post-secondary system should cover the cost of education. But it didn't.

Here's the problem: tuition fees will always prevent students who can't pay from going to school. Unlike our progressive income tax system, tuition operates as a flat tax on individuals and families that's only balanced by a tangled mess of means-tested student aid programs. This approach doesn't meet what students actually need, even when -- as in Ontario and New Brunswick -- it is promoted as "free tuition" for "eligible families."

Meanwhile, student debt has never been higher, and tuition for many programs is has been super-sized to make up for a lack of public funding. This particularly hurts marginalized students -- Indigenous students, racialized students, international students, students with disabilities, or queer and trans students -- who face unique challenges.

Our "deserving poor" student aid solutions fall short for them, and for all students, because we have a bigger problem with connected insiders. Let me explain.

Today's high tuition fees come from funding cuts in the 1980s and 1990s. Politicians promoted tax cuts, the driving force behind funding cuts, and that meant less money for public services. Campus administrators then pushed for higher tuition to address government cutbacks. By 2015, we've seen a tripling of tuition revenue across the post-secondary sector, while federal public spending sits at its lowest level since 1946.

The big winners of this situation were corporations whose tax rates were halved by 2015, and the wealthiest one per cent who today pay less in taxes (on a per capita basis) than the poorest 10 per cent. Canada's love affair with tax cuts has hurt public services, but lavished some with big windfalls.

Over $680 billion -- more than Canada's national debt -- now sits in surplus on the balance sheets of Canadian corporations, and that figure is only based on what is publicly reported to shareholders. Revelations around the Panama Papers also suggests up to $8 billion is lost in federal tax revenues each year.

This money could be spent eliminating tuition fees, funding strong public services, restoring treaty promises to Indigenous nations, or creating the green jobs of tomorrow. Instead, it is lavished on those with deep pockets.

This rewarding of insiders also happens in our post-secondary system, where we've seen a galling rise in executive compensation. University presidents now earn double or triple the compensation of provincial premiers. The top four salaries in Ontario's university sector went to officials from the University of Toronto's "Asset Management" team, and amounted to $3.1 million. With that money, we could eliminate tuition fees for college students in the Yukon and Northwest Territories.

Our post-secondary system is broken, and must be changed. At one time, a summer job could pay for one's college or university costs. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's yearly tuition bill in 1995 was $1,694, while Premier Kathleen Wynne paid $637 in 1967. That era is over thanks to a lack of political leadership. It is time for a new generation of students to fight for a better system.

In 2010, my first encounter with student politics was born of necessity. I emerged from class after already having to skip breakfast and lunch, and noticed a free BBQ on campus hosted by my students' union. They were promoting a student day of action for lower tuition fees, and I signed up on the spot (for the free hot dog).

2016 will also see the rise of student activism, but our demands will be different. After decades of neglect, we are no longer calling for piecemeal reform. Following the lead of students in Quebec, Chile, Germany, and the United States, we are calling for free tuition.

Post-secondary education is no luxury. It is required for a decent job, a just society, and must be available to all. Post-secondary education must be strengthened and defended, like all public services, to grow our economy and invest in Canada's future.

This is the case that I am making, alongside students from coast to coast. We are not sitting idly by while this government does nothing to stop another year of tuition increases and the deferred dreams of students and their families who right now, are coming to terms with the fact that they can't afford the education they need.

We are taking to the streets on November 2 -- join us.

This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

Bilan Arte is the National Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students. The Canadian Federation of Students is the oldest and largest national student organization in Canada, representing over 650,000 college, undergraduate and graduate students across the country.

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