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Comment: Politicians overlook post-secondary tuition

As party leaders and local candidates push their way through one of the longest and most expensive federal election campaigns in Canadian history, the issue of post-secondary funding is frustratingly low on the radar.

As party leaders and local candidates push their way through one of the longest and most expensive federal election campaigns in Canadian history, the issue of post-secondary funding is frustratingly low on the radar.

Before 1995, the federal government played more of a leadership role for funding higher education, and politicians of all stripes recognized and valued education. Advanced education is the great equalizer. It’s a direct and tangible solution to issues that all parties are promising action on such as poverty reduction, middle class relief, climate change, technological innovation and job creation. There is a massive body of evidence to support the view that fully funded post-secondary education is key to solving all of the above.

For almost 40 years, Canada has been signatory to an international covenant signed by 176 countries that asserts education at all levels as a basic human right. More than 30 countries around the world have made tuition free.

It’s time for Canada to own up to its obligations and join the ranks of countries that fully fund their post-secondary systems. When students argue that tuition should be free, we are often dismissed as radical socialist idealists. This rhetoric works to suppress the idea that education is a basic human right and therefore something worth fighting for.

Education is about economic infrastructure — specifically, knowledge infrastructure. It meets our essential needs, supports our economy and functions in a similar way to universal health care, K-12 education and transportation. These are essential services provided by the state, paid for by our taxes, none of which are regarded as being particularly communist. Education is the foundation of our communities. Denying this basic human right serves only to further increase the gaps in our communities and entrench inequality in society.

When students lobby MPs to create a national post-secondary act and to increase funding for post-secondary education, many of them provide us with key messages such as “respect the taxpayer,” students “need some skin in the game,” “higher ed isn’t a free ride,” or that when they were our age, they paid their own way with limited help from the government.

If politicians truly want to respect the taxpayer, they need to respect the majority of Canadians who want to see a reduction in tuition fees. We’re sure that they aren’t telling seniors who are lobbying for better health care that they “need some skin in the game.”

Higher education isn’t a free ride, it’s an investment in our citizens and our economy, and many MPs who boast of their bootstrapping ways when they went to university conveniently omit the fact that when they attended, tuition was a fraction of the price it is today — even when adjusted for inflation.

Fully funded education at all levels ensures opportunities and social justice for our most marginalized communities.

If you want to talk about a free ride, the generations before us — especially the baby boomers — had everything that we don’t: affordable education, affordable housing, booming economy and a strong job market.

Today’s massive burden of student debt represents one of the biggest intergenerational thefts in Canadian history. When post-secondary students graduate, they now face a 13 per cent youth unemployment rate, 27 per cent under-employment rate and out-of-reach real-estate and rental markets. Many will graduate with $27,000 to $35,000 in debt. Student debt in Canada is now a staggering amount of more than $15 billion.

This is the reality for our so-called entitled generation. We’re looking to our political leaders to take action and develop a long-term vision for our country that has higher education as its basis, not as an afterthought at the bottom of a campaign-promise checklist.

This year, students are voting on Oct. 19 for the parties with platforms that effectively address the problems of high tuition fees and student debt. Education is a right.

Kenya Rogers is director of external relations for the University of Victoria Students’ Society.