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Amidst the pandemic, post-secondary students across Canada are enduring a fall 2020 semester like no other. Institutions are grappling with online learning as a way to continue to operate at this time and almost all in-person elements of attending a college or university are on hold. The results are imperfect works-in-progress, but educators are endeavouring to support their students as best they can.

One result of this shift to online learning has been a series of requests from students for tuition reductions. At my institution, Mount Royal University, nearly 1,500 students signed a petition to reduce tuition and fees. Due to the now-extended nature of the ongoing health emergency, the majority of classes during the winter 2021 semester will once again be held remotely.

Many students, with some justification, feel that they are not getting the education they envisioned. Asking for a tuition discount in this context makes some sense.

However, it is extremely unlikely that such a discount will happen.

First of all, the costs that universities bear have not changed, at least not significantly. The overwhelming operating cost of running universities is labour. The costs associated with teaching in online environments are not lower than teaching in real life. 

On the other end of the Zoom meeting or Google classroom, there is a faculty member. That person’s labour cost is unchanged.

In some cases, universities have provided some relief to students when ancillary services, such as fitness centres, are not available.

At the same time, other costs may have increased (IT services, support services and so on). On many campuses, regrettably, some staff have been laid off or furloughed. Universities have kept costs down, as much as possible, but they are struggling as enrolments shift and governments prove recalcitrant to provide support.

Second, simply requesting a discount on tuition is frustratingly imprecise. It implies that online education is necessarily inferior to than an in-person class.

But how inferior is it? What percentage reduction is appropriate? No easy answers are possible. Although I believe that an in-person education is superior to one delivered remotely, some students may prefer learning online.

In particular, students who are in remote or rural communities may be gaining access to an education that would otherwise be out of geographical reach. Determining an appropriate discount to tuition, in other words, is all but impossible, even if university costs were down — which, again, they are not.

Since a tuition reduction is not feasible, I would like to suggest that students advocate for something else: abolishing tuition entirely.

Nothing about post-secondary tuition in Canada is inevitable. I am not the first to make this point and neither is it a particularly radical view: the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) has long advocated for eliminating tuition and the federal NDP has adopted similar positions.

In Canada, post-secondary tuition has increased far more rapidly than the rate of inflation. Since the 1990s, the university system has shifted the burden of costs increasingly onto students, while federal and provincial systems have created piecemeal programs that feed inequality.

The CFS reported last year that, by 2016, national student debt had surpassed $36 billion, creating a generation of indebted young Canadians. The average indebted graduate of a bachelor’s or master’s program, as of 2017, owed over $26,000 in loan repayments. While university or college is touted as a means of creating a better future for students, emerging with a diploma and a large debt load has become a very mixed blessing.

An additional result of escalating tuition costs is that students increasingly view themselves as consumers of a product, rather than as citizens gaining access to an education. The post-secondary sector and government, frankly, have by and large encouraged this mindset.

This view is, however, corrosive to universities and students themselves. Even the request to have a tuition discount has this mindset at its core: students are asking to pay less for an online educational product that they view as inferior to an in-person one.

That complaint makes perfect sense in a neoliberal marketplace. However, education is not a product. It is not job training in a narrow sense, in spite of how instrumentalist provincial governments like Alberta’s United Conservative Party wish to view it.

Historically, the university system has had an abstract correlation to future employment. Nonetheless, its positive outcomes are demonstrable across its 800-plus year history.

Its benefits continue to this day: a 2020 Bank of Canada report finds that university graduates have a 53 per cent wage premium relative to Canadians without any post-secondary experience. Statistics Canada, meanwhile, finds in a 2020 study that Canadians with higher levels of education have significantly longer life expectancies and better health outcomes.

But education itself is not job training and it is not, except in the narrowest of interpretations, a product. It is, rather, a system that has endeavoured to contribute to the social good since the earliest universities were founded.

Internationally, many countries today do not charge their students tuition to attend a post-secondary institution. Germany, Norway, Finland, Denmark and other countries are routinely discussed as providing free, or nearly free, post-secondary educations. Each country’s experiment with different funding models should be analyzed in detail, but the overall lesson for Canada is that there are other, potentially better ways to organize our post-secondary sector.

Change is possible. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many things that were previously unthinkable in mainstream contexts have become points of serious policy consideration.

Perhaps the single best example is the conversation around creating a universal basic income. This conversation has emerged in part as an outgrowth of the recently wound-down Canada Emergency Response Benefit program. But other shifts are afoot, including conversations about federal childcare, pharmacare and dental care.

At this time, students who are arguing with their institutions for a temporary tuition reduction should combine their voices and petition the government for universal free tuition. Other progressive social programs have recently become thinkable. So too might we begin a conversation about how to create a better future for the next generation of Canadians by rethinking the post-secondary sector.

Kit Dobson is a professor in the department of English, languages, and cultures at Mount Royal University.

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