Four Reasons Why University Education Should Be Free

Observations and analyses in this essay are those of the author, and are not to be attributed to the service provider or to any institution.

Four reasons why tuition should be free

University 1. Canada has committed itself in a legally-binding international treaty to abolishing university tuition fees.

Canada signed and in 1976 ratified (thereby giving it the force of law in Canada) the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In this treaty the contracting parties commit themselves to "the progressive introduction of free education" at the post-secondary level, in conformity with their promise that "Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all" (Article 13.2.c).

This treaty also requires that, with respect to social, economic and cultural rights, including education, the signatories do not practise "discrimination of any kind as to... national or social origin" (Article 2.2).

In the thirty-seven years since Canada has ratified this covenant, not only has free post-secondary education not been progressively introduced in Canada as the treaty requires, but the cost of post-secondary studies has increased dramatically in relation to the rate of inflation. During the same period, most Canadian universities introduced discrimination on the basis of national origin by charging international students higher fees than Canadian students.

As Canada's refusal to comply with its legal obligations under the Kyoto Accord on greenhouse gas emissions has vividly illustrated, there regrettably exists no legal mechanism to force "rogue states" to obey international laws that they have adopted.

2. Young people should not have to bear a debt of tens of thousands of dollars upon graduation.

The majority of graduating students in Canada (about 60%) have had to borrow money to pay for their studies and begin their working lives with onerous debts. Their debts upon graduation are on average close to $28,000 before interest payments, and typically $10,000 more including interest. In Newfoundland and Labrador and in Nova Scotia, the average student debt on graduation is about $35,000, while in Quebec, with its lower tuition fees before 2012, it has been about $15,000.* These debts must be borne by a generation of graduates for whom finding suitable, long-term employment is not always an easy task (hence the title of the Globe and Mail article cited at the bottom of this page: "Debt-ridden and unemployed").

3. Canada is one of the most prosperous countries in the world, and can afford post-secondary education for its young people as easily as (or, in many cases, more easily than) other countries that do not have tuition fees.

In many countries of the world (for example Argentina, Ecuador, France, Sweden, Finland), some of which are significantly poorer than Canada, there are no tuition fees or only small registration fees for citizens attending public universities.

University It is reasonable to ask whether it is more helpful to the population of Canada to spend tax revenues paid by Canadian citizens on free post-secondary education, or to spend tens of billions of dollars on a war machine that does little or nothing for Canadians, such as the $28 billion (according to the Rideau Institute) on the failed invasion of Afghanistan, and on the deaths of all the Afghans and Canadians this war has killed. Or, to cite other examples, does it help Canadians more to spend $35 billion on new warships and as much again on new warplanes, when Canada has not had to defend itself against an invasion for two centuries and when no one is threatening to invade the country? It is also reasonable to ask if universities could not themselves ensure that their internal spending choices give priority to academic programme expenses over, for example, promotional and management expenses. In short, the claim that Canadian governments and universities "just cannot afford" free tuition is groundless.

4. With regard to qualifications for employment, one or more university degrees are today the equivalent of a high school diploma forty years ago.

There are many careers requiring today one or more university degrees that previously did not: those of elementary school teachers, nurses, accountants, information specialists, etc. Therefore the proportion of the age group graduating from university today is even higher than the proportion graduating from high school forty years ago, yet no one suggested forty years ago that students should have to pay for their high school studies. According to certain governments in Canada, 70% of new jobs require post-secondary education, and half of Canada's university graduates return to university to obtain a second degree in the hope of finding decent employment.*

In summary, it is clear that today post-secondary studies fall within the range of levels that citizens are expected to attain as part of their basic education, and that they are a constituent element of education as a fundamental human right that should be provided to young people without charge by the community as a whole.

The 2012 student movement in Quebec and the tuition debate

The 2012 movement of students and their supporters against tuition fee increases in Quebec has brought the issue of the cost of post-secondary studies to the forefront of public debate in Canada. Often this debate centres on the question of accessibility. Do high tuition fees make it more difficult for young people to acquire an education? Detractors of the student movement argue that this is not the case. They cite the fact, for example, that although Quebec now has the lowest tuition fees in the country, it does not have a higher participation rate in post-secondary studies than certain other provinces where these studies are more expensive. However such reasoning wrongly assumes that there are not other factors, of a historical and social nature, that could account for the slightly lower rate of participation in Quebec than in some (but not all) other provinces, and it does not consider the very real possibility that an increase in tuition fees will lead to an even lower rate in Quebec. Opponents of the Quebec student movement also claim that the participation rate of less wealthy students is no different in high tuition fee jurisidictions than in Quebec. Since it is in fact impossible to determine by appealing to statistics the exact relationship between tuition fee levels and accessibility, I do not in this article base my arguments for free post-secondary education on the matter of accessibility, except to point out the obvious fact that it easier for a young person from a rich family than a young person from a poor family to pay for an expensive education,


Why have tuition fees?

The strongest argument in favour of tuition fees is that university graduates have subststantially higher incomes than non-university graduates. They should not therefore expect their studies to be totally subsidized from general tax revenue to which non-graduates as well as well as graduates must contribute. This argument could be applied to any level of education, since high school graduates have on average higher incomes than those who have completed only elementary school. The argument raises two questions. The first is: from the perspective of the well-being of society as a whole, should education be considered a privately purchased consumer product or a public good provided to all qualified members of society by the community? The second, closely related question (closely related because there is already a social consensus that, with respect to elementary and secondary education, the answer to the first question is "a public good" and not "a consumer product") is this: in today's society, given the educational requirements needed for the functioning of the society's organizations and institutions, what is the highest level of study that should reasonably be considered to fall within the range of levels that citizens are expected to attain as part of their basic education? These two questions can in fact be reduced to one: is the post-secondary education of a significant portion of the citizenry sufficiently important for the functioning of society today to be considered a public and not a private good? In these remarks I argue that it is.

An even less convincing argument for costly university tuition is that students and graduates do not value their studies unless they are expensive. Defending the tuition fee increases in Quebec, the provost at that time of Concordia University was quoted in the Montreal Gazette (March 8, 2012) as saying: "I seriously worry that by offering things cheaply you inadvertently create the idea they have little worth. It is vital for people to value the education they receive." This line of reasoning appears to confirm, unintentionally, of course, Karl Marx's concept of what is now called the "commodification" of human relations, the idea that capitalism contaminates every aspect of human life by reducing it to its monetary exchange value. However most people still believe that many things in life, indeed the most important and valued things like love, respect, honesty, and the like, cannot be purchased and that their value cannot be measured in dollars and cents. This can be said as well for public services provided by the whole community for the benefit of all its members.

Concerning the last point, one argument for tuition fees I have heard from a university administrator is that "in the end, someone has to foot the bill," and that in Canada today, provincial governments pay about 80% of this bill and students only 20%. It is not obvious, this administrator continued, "that taxpayers should simply pick up the remaining 20%." (Parenthetically, I might note that the student fee component of a university's income is sometimes incorrectly formulated with the claim that students pay only 20% of the cost of their education. However the 20% figure is calculated as a proportion of the total budget, whereas a not insignificant portion of a university's budget is allocated to many activities not involving the instruction of students, such as faculty research, staff travel, advertising and "celebration of accomplishments", expansion of non-teaching administrative positions, high levels of senior executive remuneration and perquisites, etc.). In fact, in many Canadian universities today governments contribute to less than half of their costs, and in Ontario, for example, officials speak not of "public universities" but of "publicly-assisted" universities.

Saying that everything has a cost is of course true of any public service, whether it is CBC radio, streets and highways, garbage collection, snow-clearing, food safety protection, medical care, the police, high school education, etc. I would rephrase the question so as to ask not who is the someone who should pay, but what sectors of human activity should be funded by the collectivity because they serve the collective good or constitute protection against collective risk?

* "Debt-ridden and unemployed: We are the class of 2012", The Globe and Mail, June 1, 2012.

James MacLean
July, 2012; edited September, 2013.

Other essays by James MacLean