On Nov. 5, a group of current and former students will come together for a Day of Action to protest the fact that the government of Ontario does not pay their entire tuition bill.
I love protests; they’re one of my favourite parts of democracy. Putting pressure on our elected representatives is not only a right, but an obligation of all citizens. The problem with this protest, however, is that it is funded by levy fees collected on a mandatory basis—my fees and yours—by the Canadian Federation of Students for the purpose of lobbying on our behalf, for policies ostensibly to benefit us. But the CFS and their protests are a waste of our money, and the policies they advocate are wrong for students.
First of all, their approach is politically unwise. This year’s protest is not only about tuition. The protest’s goal is to “Drop Fees for a Poverty-Free Ontario,” a statement which is insulting in its lack of sophistication, as it suggests that university tuition fees are the cause of poverty in the province. Furthermore, the CFS is diluting their message by attempting to tackle too many issues. At the protest, many will hold Drop Fees signs that were printed and thrust into their hands by staff members of the Canadian Federation of Students. Others will display banners for various communist parties. Some will wave Palestinian flags. Some will carry placards advocating an immediate end to the war in Afghanistan, or their support for war-resisters. In other words, the crowd at the CFS Day of Action will look like a who’s who of left-wing causes.
Don’t get me wrong, while poverty reduction is an important goal, the CFS and UTSU should stick to post-secondary education policy. Every deviation from that issue is another dollar of student money wasted. This soup of diluted messages is exactly what puts a bad taste in the government’s mouth and it ruins the rest of the meal.
Secondly, the policies being advocated by the CFS and UTSU are contrary to their stated goals of making post-secondary education more fair and equitable. I share the goal of the CFS and UTSU to increase access to education. The problem is, it’s a waste of resources to provide free education to rich people. Why should the government pay for students who can afford to pay higher fees to attend U of T for free? Upper-class students should not be allowed to piggy-back on the tax dollars of the middle and working classes. But that’s exactly what a universal elimination of tuition fees would amount to.
Instead, the government should look at a couple of other alternatives. One excellent option is to allow for an increase in tuition fees that is proportional to the income of a student’s family. If a student’s parents can afford to pay full price, then the extra dollars paid by that student should go toward funding poorer students. From a policy standpoint, this means a “progressive” system of user fees that is based on income (not unlike our current progressive tax system), and more funding to bursaries and zero or low-interest loans for students from less privileged backgrounds. This system would provide more access to education, and would ensure that regardless of income, if you’ve got the grades then you can go. It’s simple, and it meets our shared goals of fairness and social justice.
Another alternative that has been explored in other jurisdictions is Income Contingent Loans. Under the ICL system, students would not pay their tuition bills while they are students who earn little to no income. Instead, the cost of their education would be paid-off by them once they’re enjoying the fruits of that education. If you make more money, you pay a larger amount of the bill—just like in our current tax system where high-income-earners pay a larger share of tax revenue.
These are only a couple alternatives, both of which are better policies than those advocated by the CFS and UTSU, and both are more likely to be adopted by the government. It’s time for the CFS and UTSU to get real. It’s time for students at this university, across the province, and across the country to start demanding better from their self-appointed advocates.