Examine Free Post-Secondary Education

Originally published in The Winnipeg Free Press

The tuition debate back is back in Manitoba with a very different focus than in previous years. Recent comments made by the premier and education minister suggest that after more than a decade of a tuition freeze followed by legislation limiting increases in undergraduate fees to the rate of inflation, higher tuition fee increases are under consideration.

To quote Yogi Berra, for some of us it is like déjà vu all over again. In my case, as president-elect of the University of Manitoba Student’s Union in 1978, I was involved in one of the largest student protests against significant tuition fee increases brought in by the Sterling Lyon government. Similarly, there were major tuition fee increases under the Gary Filmon government.

There will no doubt be significant debate about whether to continue with the current legislation or to significantly increase tuitions. Across Canada and in the United States, there has been more and more focus on a third option: that of eliminating tuitions.

Why is the free-tuition movement gaining strength? The answer is clear: it is rooted in growing inequality and the impact it is having on the millennial generation.  

Steve Ashton Thumbs Up

The overall increases in tuitions across Canada didn't just happen. Much of the impetus came from the drastic erosion of federal funding that reduced its share of post-secondary funding from a 50 per cent level in 1967 to a current level of nine per cent for universities and only 1.4 per cent for colleges. This has led to a significant increase in the amount of private versus public funding in post-secondary education. This includes not only corporate and direct private funding, but increased tuitions as well.

Canada has one of the highest rates of private funding of post-secondary education in the world. As recently as 1990, public funds accounted for as much as 80 per cent of post-secondary budgets, compared to as little as 50 per cent today.

In the past, the counter arguments to free tuition have been fairly predictable. These include the argument that people benefit from post-secondary education and therefore should pay for it upfront through tuitions, as well as arguments that there are other ways of investing in post-secondary education that can assist more people to attend post-secondary education institutions.

What has changed dramatically is the fact the millennial generation is in many ways faced with the prospect of the end of the social contract that indicated that with a post-secondary education you would not only be better off than without it, but also as well off or better off than your parents. Many millennials face the prospect of being worse off than their parents and previous generations.

For many millennials, the working- and middle-class dream of working hard and getting an education is not leading to long-term economic security. Millennials are finding that they are in a new world economy where precarious employment and minimal wages are the new normal.

With upwards of 70 per cent of jobs requiring a post-secondary education, in many cases millennials are finding the jobs they are getting are the type of jobs that would be available to high school graduates 30 and 40 years ago, minus the time in university or college and the student debt. Post-secondary education still leads to higher incomes, but a recent Statistics Canada study showed this advantage has narrowed and does not apply to all fields.

The reality is many millennials are faced with significant student debts when they graduate — an average of $27,000 in Canada — with more and more facing limited immediate prospects to pay it back.

Notwithstanding this new millennial reality, the response is often that while free tuition is idealistic, it is unrealistic. The fact is that 17 countries do provide post-secondary education tuition-free. For example, my son Alexander recently completed a master of science in engineering and urban planning in Aalborg, Denmark paying no tuition. No tuition and no student debt.

Eliminating tuition fees is doable. A recent report by the CCPA identified the provincial share of eliminating tuition and the federal share would be in the range of $130 million in Manitoba. Tuition fees account for only 0.6 per cent of GDP and there are many potential ways of redirecting and re-profiling existing tax credits and supports to ensure tuition can be made more affordable and even free.

Eliminating tuitions isn't a panacea. Many millennials are calling for action on other issues, such as eliminating loans in favour of bursaries, increasing the minimum wage to a living wage of at least $15 an hour and action to ensure good, not precarious, employment. Indigenous students are looking to the federal government to follow through on providing increased support to post-secondary education as it lifts the two per cent cap placed on funding in the 1990s.

Why should this current generation of post-secondary students be saddled with higher tuitions and high student-debt loads? Why can't we make history by moving to eliminate post-secondary tuition and engage in a broad effort to ensure even greater access to education?

Steve Ashton is a former University of Manitoba Students' Union president and Manitoba cabinet minister.

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