The battle over tuition deregulation in Ontario came front and centre to U of T this week. A national protest was spearheaded on our own campus by anti-deregulation crusader and SAC President Alex Kerner, who called not just for a tuition freeze, but for an end to tuition fees entirely. (Similar events have been held by other student groups across the nation).
Standing in stark contrast to this position are those such as Queen’s University president William Leggett, who has recently called for total deregulation of all undergraduate tuition fees.
The two sides could not, it seems, be more diametrically opposed. And there is no room for compromise, either. How do you compromise on principles of fairness and equity, Kerner often asks?
Well, on this point I can find some common ground with our esteemed president. Indeed, there should be no compromise. However, if fairness and equity are your goals, then you should be aiming for the total deregulation of tuition fees as quickly as possible.
Contrary to the myths you often hear on the topic, tuition fee hikes are in fact incredibly progressive. Students who complete post-secondary education see the benefits of that investment accrue to them primarily by way of greatly improved lifetime earning prospects. The more this education is subsidized by the taxpayer, the more this represents a regressive transfer of wealth from the less fortunate to the affluent.
This is because most taxpayers do not have university degrees, and thus maintain below-average incomes. Thus, the graduates of tomorrow, destined to make above-average incomes, are having their tuition subsidized by the presently poor.
In the case of professional degrees such as law or medicine, students will end up making grossly above-average incomes and are therefore reaping the most distorted benefits under this Orwellian scheme.
Of course, there are legitimate concerns about how many students will be able to afford these higher fees. The best solution to this potential problem is not through the totally inequitable nightmare of zero tuition. Rather, it is through Income Contingent Loans (ICLs).
Unlike the punitive Canada Student Loans Program, repayment through an ICL is distributed over one’s working life. Considerations for income fluctuations allow it to be far more flexible and “user-friendly.” As one’s income increases, greater payments are expected. If your income falls below a designated level, repayment is suspended altogether.
Under such a system, no one is denied accessibility to university based on ability to pay, and no one’s career choices are hampered upon graduation. Students interested in public interest careers need not feel the crushing burden to pay back their debts immediately, as they do under the CSLP. At my very own faculty of law, where tuition is set to increase to $22, 000 by 2007, we have an innovative back-end debt relief program similar to an ICL. Bursaries are allocated to graduating students who commit to low-income careers, to help prevent the “rush to Bay Street” and foster employment in public service.
It is important to remember that, above all, post-secondary education is a privilege to be earned; it is not a right to be handed out indiscriminately. Those who are willing and able to make the investment in themselves have nothing to fear from higher tuition, so long as it is coupled with progressive loan reforms such as the ICL. But calling for lower tuition fees, whatever one’s intentions, is nothing short of calling for one of the most regressive policies imaginable.