Free Tuition: An Antidote to Elitism

Photo by Joey Coleman • CFS Day of Action 2008 in Toronto

There’s something stirring on Canadian campuses. No longer content with piecemeal reform, students are eyeing the larger prize of zero tuition. The demand for free tuition, which has grown louder and louder in places ranging from South Africa, to the United Kingdom, to the USA has found its echo in Canada.

This November 2, students from Victoria to St. John’s will take to the streets for the Canadian Federation of Students’ (CFS) National Day of Action for tuition-free post-secondary education. Why free tuition? We are sleepwalking backwards towards a time when our post-secondary institutions were closed shops, reserved for children of the elite and dramatic change is needed now.

How did we get here?

From the first day of their establishment in what is now Canada, universities have been sites of elite formation. Initially set up to train the gentry and clergy, post-Confederation saw a reorientation towards facilitating industrial expansion. Business tycoons, including Scottish-American steel titan Andrew Carnegie, established schools and programs to furnish students with the tools they needed to manage Canadian capitalism.

A profound transformation began to take place following the arrival back home of WWII veterans from Europe. In recognition of their service, the federal government offered free tuition to veterans, a Canadian equivalent of the famed G.I Bill. The doors to previously exclusive institutions were blown open as returning soldiers were joined by an influx of new students, many of whom were women and working class, enrolled by the thousands.

During this period of massive expansion, it looked as though we were moving inexorably toward a fully universal system of post-secondary education. By the early 1970s, public funding accounted for over 90% of university budgets, and tuition fees were nominal (a student attending York University in 1970-71 paid $560). While these gains would be slowly eroded by the “greed is good” mantra that infected government policy through the late 70s and 1980s, post-secondary institutions still drew almost 80% of their revenue from government sources at the outset of the 90s.

In 1995, Finance Minister Paul Martin tabled a battering ram of a budget that would have profound consequences for post-secondary education. In one crushing blow, $25 billion was cut out of social spending, the largest ever in Canadian history. Martin himself boasted that this 40% reduction represented the smallest share of program spending relative to economic size since 1951.

Who’s losing? Who’s winning?

The fallout from this retrenchment has led us to the present crisis in post-secondary education. Public funding now accounts for less than half of university and college budgets. Students owe a total of $28 billion in outstanding loans to all levels of government. Average undergraduate tuition fees, which in 1992 stood at $1706 have skyrocketed to $6373, far outstripping other student costs including food, transportation or rent. Most shamefully of all, campus food banks, which didn’t exist in Canada prior to 1991, now serve students on almost every campus.

A sobering warning about the gradual drift towards a higher education system for the few, not the many, came last spring from an unlikely messenger. In a May 2016 report analyzing federal public spending on post-secondary education, the Parliamentary Budget Office revealed that 60% of university students now come from the wealthiest 40% of Canadian society. Even more stratified are professional programs that charge students differential fees. With average tuition for dentistry schools now at $21,000 medicine at $14,000 and law at $11,000, it’s unsurprising that these careers are becoming almost unattainable for folks from working class backgrounds.

Not everyone is hard done by as a result of the status quo. While students have shouldered rising tuition fees and insurmountable debt, upper level administrators have lavished themselves with supersized pay packages. In 2016, the University of Calgary’s president took home $943,000, almost three times the Prime Minister’s salary. Private banks have profited from the lines of credit they issue to students who fall through the cracks of our patchwork student aid system, and from federal government subsidy of RESPs.

The struggle for tuition-free education places us on a collision course with powerful interests who have benefited immensely from the downloading of costs on to students.

The way ahead

After years of neglect, it’s time for a dramatic shift in how we fund post-secondary education by renewed federal and provincial investment to eliminate tuition fees. How can we afford it? The better question is how can we afford to indebt an entire generation of young people and offer them a lower quality of life than their parents? With Canada’s largest corporations sitting on over $600 billion in accumulated reserves and billions lost annually thanks to tax avoidance schemes, we can easily find the $10.2 billion required to fund free tuition.

The rising cost of education and continuing reliance on tuition fees is a betrayal of the social contract that was hard-won by working people after the Second World War. A social contract which meant that for the first time in Canadian history, the children of miners, of steelworkers, of loggers and carpenters would have the same opportunities to further their educations as the children of Bay Street bankers.

On November 2nd, we’re fighting to restore that social contract for the children of retail workers, housekeepers, servers and taxi drivers who’ll be blocked from achieving their full potential by the elitism of the status quo. We’re fighting for the idea that your willingness to learn, not your ability to pay, should be the principle that governs our post-secondary system. We hope you’ll join us.

Peyton Veitch currently serves as the the National Treasurer of the Canadian Federation of Students.