I dig those little buttons you see sometimes. The ones CFS hands out saying, “Education is a Right!” What I don’t get, though, is why anyone thinks that kind of a slogan actually means anything with respect to education funding.
You’ve probably been in this discussion once or twice in your life. Chatting about tuition, or funding, or whatever, and someone takes the position that there should be no fees/greater funding/etc. You debate the merits of the point for a while and then that person – often with a tone of smug moral superiority – lays down the trump card: Education is a RIGHT! And then dares you contradict him/her. After all, you’d have to be some sort of monster to constrain a right, wouldn’t you?
Of course, this is horsepucky. Education is not the only economic and social right which has been enumerated by international convention; how would those other “rights” look if we presumed that: if “X is a right” then “X must be provided free of charge”?
1) Housing. Shelter is of course a right under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 27, for you treaty nerds). Now maybe I’m not paying close enough attention, but I don’t see anyone arguing that housing should be provided free of charge by the state just because it’s in the UDHR. It’s been done of course – many communist countries went down this route – but one of the results is that housing providers tend to want to make provision more uniform. And of low quality.
2) Food. Even North Korea doesn’t make food free. Subsidized, yes; free, no. That’s because even the most hardline communists recognize that different people have different tastes, and have the right to use the fruits of their labours to construct their own consumption baskets.
3) Health. Most countries buy some of their health-care collectively though some sort of insurance function, which makes it free in the sense that the zero-tuition crowd would like education to be. But not even Canada pays for all its health care this way – between eyes, teeth, drugs, elder care, and sports medicine, private expenditures still make up 30% of all health care dollars in Canada. The difference of course is that this is insurance – protection against random catastrophic loss. Education doesn’t work in quite the same way. One rarely hears of young people being randomly and catastrophically educated.
In short, the “rights” argument is the start of a conversation, rather than the end of it. In no other social and economic fields does the fact that something is a “right” make it automatically free to all. Rather, it means that it needs to be available to all, and selectively subsidized where necessary. In other words, the status quo.