Higher Education Strategy Associates

By Their Actions Shall Ye Know Them

There are two ways of thinking about student unions. You can think of them as being (a) populated by idealists, who only want education for all, or you can think of them as (b) actual unions, prioritizing wins (financial and otherwise) for their members – who, let’s recall, tend to come from wealthier backgrounds than society as a whole – ahead of any other cause.

With that in mind, let’s look at the some recent public statements from the Canadian Federation of Students’ Ontario chapter.

March 2011 – The Canadian Federation of Students says it is “disappointed” that the Ontario budget included measures to improve access by increasing spaces rather than reduce tuition fees for students who are already in post-secondary.

September 2011 – The Ontario Liberal party announces it will reduce tuition fees by thirty percent for every student from a family earning less than $160,000 per year. The Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario says it would prefer a solution that spent more money to include families earning over $160,000 as well (who, last we checked, weren’t having problems accessing PSE).

Both incidents seem to lend themselves to the interpretation that the CFS cares only about money for all of its members. This is, of course, an entirely fair and reasonable position for a union to take.

But then, a new piece of evidence arrives that really makes you wonder:

September 2011 – CFS-O issues its party platform report card for the Ontario election. The NDP platform, which freezes tuition fees and eliminates interest on student loans, gets a B+ for affordability. The Liberal platform, which provides tuition rebates of 30% for 85% all of students, but allows base tuition to continue to creep upwards, gets a B. The report card helpfully points out that the Liberal tuition promise would cost $430 million annually, while the NDP interest elimination and tuition freeze would cost $110 million.

Even from the crude analytical perspective of “how much students get,” this makes zero sense. The only students who would be better off under the NDP proposals would be those from households with over $160,000. And while the NDP proposal does contain the holy grail of “freezing tuition,” the Liberal proposal hands students almost a billion more dollars over four years than the NDP one does.

That’s an awful lot of money to punt for the right to say that tuition is frozen, and isn’t consistent with our earlier theory about being their being solely concerned with financial wins. Rather, it suggests deep confusion about the difference between means and ends.

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2 Responses to By Their Actions Shall Ye Know Them

  1. Paula says:

    Oh please. Providing a TEMPORARY tuition fee grant that’s clawed back through PERMANENT tuition fee hikes is not good for students, today or tomorrow. If you’re so concerned about households with over $160,000 benefiting from a tuition fee freeze, why don’t you support increasing their income taxes to make up the difference? Looking forward to hearing your position on that.

  2. Alex Usher says:

    I’m not clear why anyone would think that grants are temporary but a tuition freeze is permanent. Presumably both policies will last as long as the governing party in the legislature wants them to last.

    But, more broadly, your objection amounts to saying it’s OK to want to hand over tax dollars to upper-income families as long as you also want to tax them more. Which just seems a little redundant to me. If one want to think about this as an issue of net taxation (what people pay in taxes vs. what they get in services), one should be indifferent between tax hikes and tuition increases for upper-income Canadians. Progressive taxation and progressive user fees should have more or less the same distributional effect.

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