The arguments against the elimination of tuition fees are deeply flawed. More to the point, they’re often hilariously dependant on the complete suspension of reality. For example, we’re asked to believe:
- Debt is bad for governments but builds character for students.
- “Public” is the same as “free.”
- The progressive tax system, which is how we pay for lots of things we think are important, doesn’t exist.
- Public education can be simultaneously a human right and the ultimate in gold-plated decadence depending on your age.
- Everyone paying for something separately, regardless of their personal situations, is somehow more efficient than paying for the same thing collectively.
- Universal access turns us all into dance majors or architects or (insert any profession you believe to be less useful than any other).
- Zero tuition is the exception, not the norm.
- There is no progressive alternative to the status quo, which is more or less acceptable for now
- Where is our return on investment?
My concern with the “return on investment” argument is it provokes the question from detractors: What happens if you can’t prove that in every case, dollar for dollar, the public gets its money back? Surely a commitment to universal public education shouldn’t hinge on the guarantee it will be revenue neutral or even revenue generating.
The return on investment argument is also rooted in how we choose to compensate certain professions and certain kinds of work over others. So by this narrow measure, training architects, engineers and lawyers, for example, is a much better societal investment than, say, artists, child care workers and librarians.
Given that eliminating tuition fees will require public investment, and the “return on investment” rationale is convincing for many people, I’m not suggesting we discard it, but perhaps that it should not be the first line of argument.
- Where will the money come from?
- Free education is a luxury
- So you’re okay with paying people to take contemporary dance degrees?
- What are you, some kind of radical?
In fact, you might say that Canada’s decision to, with few exceptions, move in the other direction and further entrench the downloading of debt onto students and families is actually the more radical move—especially in light of the IMF's admission that the “benefits” of neoliberalism might have been (ahem) “oversold.” Zero tuition may be a seismic shift from the failed neoliberal prescription, but that doesn’t make it radical. Some might argue it just good common sense.
- It’s unnecessary (because apparently education is already basically free)
It’s not surprising this plan is embraced by those who have been arguing for years that low tuition fees benefit the wealthy because they can afford to pay more, and low-income kids are less likely to go to university. But this relies on two assumptions: that the progressive taxation system doesn’t exist, and that zero-tuition advocates believe the inequitable status quo is just fine.
On the first: of course we should pay for higher education based on what we can afford. And the best, most fair, transparent and efficient way to pay for it—and for all our social programs—is through the tax system. Not with some sliding-scale user-fee system that borrows (badly) from the public model, and succeeds only in making post-secondary education less accessible and less representative of our entire society.
As to the second assumption: society is grossly, systemically inequitable. And there is no question that access to university education is a direct reflection of the level of privilege a person enjoys. This trend doesn’t start upon high school graduation—it’s there in the deeply stratified access to child care, streaming in schools, disciplinary reports that disproportionately target students of colour, the shameful levels of Indigenous child poverty, and standardized assessments that are used as a pretext to close inner-city schools.
Keeping tuition fees low and working toward their elimination is a huge step and a necessary one. But unless we address socioeconomic inequities and their root causes, comprehensively rather than relying on piecemeal solutions, our institutions will not only continue to reflect those inequities, they will reinforce them as well. There is no question that higher education is still disproportionately the playground of the well-to-do and those whom Drew Hayden Taylor calls "people of pallor."
Finally: the very fact that “free tuition” is something governments are saying they’re doing—even if they’re not—is a sign of the power of the free-tuition movement. This is encouraging, but we should be cautious that the term and the momentum isn’t co-opted as part of a broader divide-and-conquer strategy that is inherently anti-universal. The stakes are, quite simply—like current tuition fee levels—far too high.
Erika Shaker is Director of Education and Outreach at the CCPA. Follow Erika on Twitter @ErikaShaker.