Next week, everyone’s favourite Federation of Students is going to have a “Day of Action” to demand “Free Education for All”. A few months ago I explained why some student groups think it’s a good idea to be protesting right now even while governments are quite sympathetic to them (tl:dr: it’s because Sticking It To The Man is more important that achieving practical results).
Now to anyone who’s read this blog for more than once, it’s probably clear that I take a pretty dim view on the Free Education for All line. I do believe there’s an argument for free education at the college level; however, beyond that, the case is pretty weak. Low-income students already have net zero tuition in most of the country. For students from families making $40,000, subsidies (that is, grants, loan remission and tax credits) are already larger than college fees in eight provinces – all ten if we include Manitoba’s and Saskatchewan’s graduate rebate programs. They’re also larger than university fees in five provinces: Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba. Put that altogether and it’s clear that over 90% of all low-income students are already paying net zero tuition and will gain little from eliminating tuition. The big wins, therefore, are for richer students.
Free tuition does not reduce intergenerational disparities. It cannot produce greater equity in enrolments without a massive and seriously unlikely displacement of upper-income students from universities. And even Karl Marx understood that it was regressive.
But let’s put all that aside. Let’s assume for a moment that we all agree that any regressivity which occurs in completely subsidizing education for students from wealthier backgrounds is offset by the inherent benefits of universal programs. Or, let’s assume we agree with American scholar/author and free-tuition advocate Sara Goldrick-Rab (whose new book Paying the Price is very good by the way) that the only way to really ensure that the poor get the money they need is to subsidise the rich, too. Programs for the poor are poor programs, she says, so only universality can save the poor. (I don’t think this is true in Canada – the Trudeau government has just shown how to do targeting with its changing tax credits into grants – but I grant the possibility it may be the case in the US, so let’s go with it for now).
But even if we assume all that, we still need to assume that there is money available. And in one sense there clearly is: governments can make anything happen if they want to. They just have to decide to do it. It is a political question more than a financial one. But politics, as they say, is about choices. And the issue is: what would we choose not to pay for in order to ensure that kids from above-median income families don’t have to pay tuition?
Peace-keeping? Should we say no to a mission to Mali to keep wealthier kids from paying tuition? Childcare? Do we choose to invest less in childcare to make university free for those who can clearly afford it? Or what about clean drinking water on First Nations’ territories? More investments in mental health?
Because of entrenched interests and programs, it’s very difficult for democratic governments to move money from program to program. When incremental money arrives, they have to assign it to whatever priorities they think most important. It could go back to taxpayers via a tax cut, or it could go to pay down debt, or it could go into a priority spending area. When someone says “government should eliminate post-secondary fees”, in practical terms what they are implicitly arguing is that “students from wealthier backgrounds (because those are the primary beneficiaries) deserve this money more than families with childcare needs, or First Nations families living in communities with boil water advisories. I know they would explicitly deny this, but from the perspective of the government, which has to choose between competing priorities, this is exactly what is being advocated. That’s how lobbying works.
To recap: Free fees would help the rich most, would not reduce intergenerational inequality, will not work to reduce inequality of access, and to boot would take money away from other important policy priorities, many of which (e.g. First Nations’ health and sanitation) are transparently of higher importance.
Remember all that on November 2nd.