Last February, students armed with pots and pans took to the streets of Montreal to demand that the government halt its plan to increase tuition fees. In Ontario, the McGunity government rolled out a plan to reduce tuition for some students by 30 per cent, with some fine print. Graduate and part time students, among others, are excluded from this program. The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) insisted that McGuinty was not taking a serious approach to post-secondary education. U of T Liberals insisted that the CFS was being spoiled and that the grant was sufficient considering the provincial government’s fiscal circumstances. In both instances, an age-old debate was once again brought to the forefront of campus discussion. Is education a right, or is it a privilege?

I believe that education is a right. This does not translate to “I demand free education for all immediately.” I would love for this to be the case, but I realize that our current resources don’t allow for this dream to materialize at the moment. So if free education is not possible right now, why advocate for education as being a right? To prevent the ivory tower from becoming a restricted zone, accessible to only to those who have the finances to carry them forward. When education is classified as a right, it means that we as a society accept that learning should be accessible to all and that all barriers preventing people from accessing it should be torn down.

With this understanding, the government would have to make post-secondary education a priority and work towards making education more affordable to all through increased funding. It would ensure that students from disenfranchised communities are properly represented in the ivory tower. It would also ensure that students who have disabilities and mental health issues are given the support they need to complete their studies. And, it would prevent students whose parents’ income exceeds the standards set for financial aid from slipping through the cracks if their parents don’t financially support them.

Furthermore, in all societies, education has proven to be the engine that drives the vehicle of progress. It allows people to better their circumstances and incubates societies’ best and brightest minds and ideas. Knowledge is power and when we restrict access to that knowledge, we limit access to that power for certain individuals. So, we are left with a reinforcing cycle, in which the privileged get access to education, which is linked to success, and the status quo continues. If we want to move towards a more just, equitable society, we would open up these educational possibilities to all. By opening up education to all and allowing all to contribute, we are exposed to more diverse ideas and thoughts and we challenge the power structure in society as more people are given the ability to advance.

If we want all members of society to have the best possible education, so that we can all benefit from their contributions; then we must take the first step of declaring access to education a human right. If not, we will continue to accept a world where knowledge is limited and your access to it is dependent upon your pocketbook.

Abdullah Shihipar is a second year student studying Cell and Molecular Biology and a member of the Arts and Science Students’ Union executive. The views expressed here are his own.

This week, Wes Dutcher-Walls has also written on the subject of education, and has a different idea on the topic: Rights rhetoric is misleading our generation about higher education