Tuition fees are not desirable, beneficial, or inevitable

Op-eds Opinions

Another year, another set of students gearing up to take on the real world. And while students may be breathing a sigh of relief now that exams are over, there’s a bigger challenge facing this generation of graduates: student debt.

The cost of a university degree in Canada is getting steeper, but tuition fees — and the crippling debt that accompanies them — can be avoided.

Tuition and other compulsory fees are expected to have tripled from 1990 to 2017, according to research by a the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. The average Canadian student owes $27 000 after graduation. You can imagine the reaction: universities cite the need to stay competitive in the global market, the government claims fees increase quality, and free education activists lament the disadvantaged students missing out on a degree.

University tuition is even more damaging than the latter response suggests. The uncomfortable truth is that fees further entrench class privilege; students from well-off backgrounds sail into top universities, while people unable to afford but most likely to benefit from higher education are left behind. Economic barriers are a deterrent to getting a degree.

Everybody deserves the opportunity to access education without the burden of being in debt for the foreseeable future. Why should anyone be able to demand thousands of dollars for the privilege of learning about the world?

Abolishing tuition fees is not a radical socialist ideal. Any notion of free tuition being unrealistic or unaffordable is undermined by the success of free higher education in countries like Germany and Brazil.

Compared to many students, Canadians have it easy. As an English citizen, I pay around $16 000 each year to attend the University of Leeds, as do students at 113 out of 120 universities in England. The average student debt in the United Kingdom is over $80 000. But while I may simmer quietly as my roommates bemoan the cost of their degree, this comparison misses the point.

Everyone should be able to access higher education. Canada is part of an international covenant signed by 176 countries that states all levels of education are a basic human right. Denying this right fosters inequality and exacerbates the gap between the rich and poor.

It’s a lack of political will, not money, that’s preventing Canada from supporting a system of public higher education. Such a wealthy country could, and should, afford to give students equal opportunity to expand their horizons and learn to think independently.

Proponents of tuition fees may say it’s a case of picking the right battle: with the pressure of scarce resources, broadening access to higher education isn’t the priority. Countless issues deserve more funding across British Columbia. That’s undeniable.

But higher education provides a tangible solution to many other problems facing the province. Learning alleviates poverty and unemployment; knowledge is an invaluable equaliser that leads to a more productive workforce.

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest,” said Benjamin Franklin, whose vision is a far cry from the spiralling cost of education in North America. The government needs to admit that education shouldn’t be a luxury only for those who can afford it. Eliminate the economic barriers deterring bright minds from accessing higher education and remove the daunting debt burdening graduates. Students deserve better.