Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Politics of Free Tuition

So ... New Brunswick is going to have free university tuition for some of its less well off citizens. Sort of .... It is not really the "free tuition" that we have heard people bandying about as a name but it could represent a very different approach to university education in NB and one of the more innovative ideas that we've seen in a generation with regard to post-secondary education. There are many reasons to like this idea. There are just as many -- from what I can tell -- to worry about its practise. But, there are some other interesting and potentially important things to note about the debate over "free tuition" as it has already unfolded and it is to those interesting things that I want to devote some attention.

My reason for doing so is not that I want to avoid a discussion of the merits of "free tuition." I don't. Indeed, I think this debate is long, long overdue. I've been arguing it -- not that you folks who happen to be reading this would notice because I don't have a high public profile, or, well ... any public profile -- for some time. Other countries in the world have adopted a "free tuition" model (which is, like the model proposed for NB, not free but the name kind of sticks). And, it seems to me that in more ways than one the secondary educational system of NB -- and perhaps many other jurisdictions in Canada -- is at a bit of an impasse. This impasse is historically conditioned. It is not the product simply of a bunch of individual bad decisions. There are, I think, good and bad ways out of the impasse. Said differently, there are better answers to solve our problems and worse answers.  There are no guarantees that answer X or policy Y will solve problems but there is good reason to presume that some answers will move a greater distance toward solving problems than others.

This is where the free tuition idea/discussion/debate enters into the question. Its politics are multifaceted. One of the things that has struck me about it, however, is the degree to which people are lining up in opposition to it. Indeed, it is a sign of the times, I suppose, that there are people ready willing and able to articulate views against the idea that increasing access to education is good. I cannot, in fact, imagine another time in Canadian history -- and, I am a historian -- where people would have argued such a thing publicly. After WW II, for instance, great efforts were made to expand post-secondary education; again in the 1960s the idea of making education more accessible was seen as a good thing. And, today, the Maple Spring in Quebec was about precisely this (among other things): accessibility. We are, therefore, in an interesting moment in time where for the first time that I am aware of when have come out against free tuition. There seem to be a range of reasons why this is the case but let's take one to start with, that offered by the self-appointed Canadian Taxpayer's Federation. I want to start with this argument because it is (a) one that will likely be repeated over and over again and (b) a pretty darned weak argument against "free tuition." In future blogs I'll look at other arguments against free tuition and what free tuition is all about.

The argument, as reported (cite is below), given by the Atlantic director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation runs like this:

“There’s nothing free in government,” says Kevin Lacey, Atlantic director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. “This promise today is paid for with borrowed money. That money that’s borrowed today will mean higher taxes to the very students that are benefiting.”
Lacey says the Tuition Access Bursary (TAB) sounds like a positive step but it’s a bit misguided. (cite

I am citing the news story. So far, you might say, so good, pretty reasonable and looking like it might be balanced. But, then it gets silly:

“Investing in education is the right path for the province, it promotes business investment,” Lacey said. “But there’s no evidence to show that investing more money in lowering tuition payments will actually encourage more people to go to university. There’s much larger factors than just cost to why people go to school and why they don’t.”

And, here one might start to wonder about the arguments being made against free tuition. This argument is what is called a "truism." It is, more or less, the philosophical equivalent of saying "pain hurts" or "grass is green." The statement is true but it is also irrelevant because the point being made is so straightforward that it is the beginning of the an argument; not its end point. In this case, the idea that any one person makes a decision -- say, to go to university -- for a variety of reasons is the truism. We all knew that. In fact, no one pretended anything but. I'll rephrase my point just in case my language is preventing anyone from understanding it (and, apologies for that if it is the case): Lacey's position is silly. He states something we already knew and tries to mobilize it  as a reason to argue against free tuition.

But, and this is my point, his argument misses the mark. While we all know that parents, students, etc., make decisions for a range of reasons that does not mean that money is *not* one of those reasons and it does not mean that it is *not* an important one. For example, a student might choose to discontinue their university education and they might do so for a range of reasons. They might not like their major and want to  change it. They might be homesick. They might decide that they need skill upgrading. They might want to shift over to college. In other words, there could be a bunch of reasons but ... if you take a look at these reasons, they are all -- in one way or another -- related to money. The student who decides to drop out rather than change majors is making that decision because they don't have the cash to go back and start again in a new programme. The homesick kid makes that decision because they cannot afford to get home often enough. The student who decides to shift to college does that because they feel that they are more employable. In other words. while there are complicated reasons why student X or student Y makes a decision to go to -- or, to leave -- university, money is in there somewhere.

I work in a university and I hear this all the time. I frequently hear students (who are about to leave university without completing their degree) say "I'd love to keep going and get a good education, to know more about Canada [I work in Canadian Studies] but I can't afford it and so I'm going to get a trade." Said differently, the only way to pretend that money is *not* a key factor in decision making regarding post-secondary education is to not be familiar with the people who are attending post-secondary education and the way they think and look at the world.

Now, I want to hasten to add a couple of other points that I'll put out there in response to potential red herrings (you all know what a red herring is ... an argument that distracts from the discussion at hand). No one is saying that free tuition will ensure that everyone goes to university, at least everyone among those who make below a certain income level. It won't and the policy -- at least from what I can tell -- is not designed to that. The red herring here is that someone says "this policy did not work because some people, or a lot of people, or most people, still don't go to university." We don't have a command economy in Canada. We  can't just order people to go to university. Nor, of course, can the state solve all problems. Whether you, I, or the folks who run the Canadian Taxpayer's Federation like it or not -- and, for the record I do -- after a certain age each individual retains a freedom of choice with regard to their education.  Because people will make different decisions for different reasons, some will elect to go to university and some will not. Some will go to university and decide it is not for them. Others will go and decide that it is.

To say this differently, if this policy is implemented, its success or failure -- in some people's eyes -- will not be assessed on what it actually sets out to do, which is almost complicated and multifaceted. For some it will be  assessed against a standard that it never articulated. What we have, then, is an argument in which a key reason for making decisions is downplayed in favour of some unnamed complexity but little to no analysis actually done on how that complexity might relate to money or how different factors might be inter-related. Moreover, we have little conception of what the goals of the programme actually are. Instead, we are left to make assumptions because those details are not really addressed in the story. The key point here, we need to think about the objectives of "free tuition" before we start saying it will or it will not work.

As this news story goes on we are treated to more truisms that seem to line up in opposition to the idea that "free tuition" -- increased access to postsecondary education -- is a good thing. We are told, for instance, by other advocates of the private sector that the government made a "political decision." Be still my heart. I don't to make fun of this argument but I can't think of what else to do because it is so naively silly. Does anyone not think that governments make political decisions? Pause, for a second, and think about decisions made by other governments. Were those not political? Was, say, the federal Harper govt's energy plan for Canada somehow *not* political? Was Trudeau's support of feminism *not* political? Was the previous NB government's decision to *not* lower tuition somehow *not* political? Was the NS government's pandering to the middle class as it was creating a framework to drastically raise tuition in NS somehow not political? Seriously ... it is as if the person making this statement had not taken Politics 101 ... say, at university.

In the news story others expressed disappointment that government did not consult the private sector, but why should it? Does the private sector have some different privileged access to government than the rest of us? Why should it -- the government -- consult the private sector any more than it should consult educators? Or, say, universities? Or, parents or students or labour unions or churches? Somehow, the story implies (or, at least the person making this statement is implying) that something bad has gone on here: the government of NB tried to increase access to postsecondary education without consulting the business sector. But, as citizens we might ask: why should business get a say in whether or not my kids can or should go to university? Surely, in fact, in a democracy, they shouldn't or at least they should have no more say than any other interest and certainly should not have special access to government (they should have a say, to be sure, but as individuals and no more than you or I).

I've now gone on too long but you see the point I am making. We have here a group of people trying to make an argument that they know is not popular. They know that increased access to postsecondary education will be popular and popular with specific sectors of society. Thus, they resort to other arguments: it is misguided, the government is being "political" (that is, it is not behaving with good intentions but unnamed bad ones) and the issue is "complicated" (as if anyone said it was not). I suspect, as I said above, that conclusions will also be drawn on the basis of objectives that are not part of the actual goals of this policy so that some people can declare it a failure? Why and for what reason?

This is the odd thing, as I said above, access to education is good. Its democratic and it is good for society. Who opposes it? Well, right now it is pro-conservative  lobby groups and business interests and a few journalists, but there are others on social media articulating other views. Why are they opposed? Some are upset because they were not consulted -- that is, they did not get privileged access to government -- others because they think it will raise taxes (but they make this claim without, of course, providing any evidence). But there is also something else there as well. That is what I will address in my next blog ....
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