Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The (Sad) Politics of Free Tuition

I'll stop after this one and move on to another subject. I promise. I've written a number of blogs that try to make an argument about "free tuition" in NB in three parts:

1. Its hard to argue against education so those who oppose free tuition, don't. Instead, they use vague, imprecise arguments that raise questions about free tuition without coming out and saying they oppose it. This way they oppose it ... without sounding like idiots.

2. Education is good. It has a lot of benefits that include safer communities, greater civic engagement, and higher lifetime earnings.

3. Free education for poorer Canadians is ethically sound and, in fact, a continuation of a broader commitment to equality of opportunity.

Now, I am not arguing that this specific policy is a good policy. Like many people, I guess, I'll need more time to assess its specifics and need to see how the debate turns out and what amendments are made to it. My point is that free tuition is not just a "nice" thing the government can do for poorer New Brunswickers. It has the weight of evidence behind it. In fact, even if we were't interested in being nice -- if we were crassly self-interested -- we'd have to concede that there are appreciable merits behind "free tuition."

So ... who actually opposes it? That is, in part, not clear. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation opposes it because it involves government spending but ... the Canadian Taxpayers Federation is hardly a neutral body. Its a neo-liberal lobby group that is self-appointment (they actually aren't a federation of taxpayers; its just a name. If you doubt me ... did you ever get invited to a meeting or was your view of their policy ever solicited?). In other words, its not a group whose views should be seen as studied or considered. It begins from a particular perspective and simply articulates that perspective, rather than reviewing evidence and subjecting that evidence to critical thought. Thus, the first group that opposes free tuition are neo-liberals, or, more specifically, their mouth pieces. That might have been expected.

It might be easy to dismiss neo-liberal discourse as a been-there-done-that type of thing (neo-liberalism, of course, is not new. It dates as a discourse perhaps to the 1960s and was implemented in Canada in the mid-1980s. In fact, other than the brief Martin government -- which arguably didn't know what it was doing -- all Canadian governments since 1984 have been one-stripe or another of neo-liberalism. Hence, if you think "gee, these people have some new and fresh ideas ... you might want to brush up on history since their ideas are -- far from being new -- a generation or more old). But, what interests me about it, is the number of people I run into who are willing to at least play around with the idea. In my line of work, I meet people who periodically say things like "Mount A would be better off if it were private because then we could charge 15K+$ in tuition." Now, this is, of course, both true and crap. Mount A could, theoretically, charge whatever it wanted for tuition. The question is: would people pay? I've blogged on this before, but the assumption that Mount A's student body will remain constant if it increases tuition is a pretty shaky assumption.

(In point of fact, it flies in the face of capitalist economics because capitalist economics suggest that price influences demand and so I find it odd that the very people who claim to support capitalism proceed as if they market did not matter in the case of tuition at Mount A. I've blogged on this before, however, and so I won't continue.)

Neo-liberals used to try to make a series of arguments to support their opposition to state involvement in the economy (with things like "free tuition").  They used to say that cutting taxes will improve income, make the economy more efficient, lower unemployment, etc., etc. As time has gone by and those things have not happened -- again, its not new or untried, its been around for a generation -- these arguments have tended to drop away. Neo-liberals still make them but we all know that a 1% cut in the HST ain't gonna make any difference to anyone's income. As these arguments ring hollow, they have been replaced by another set of arguments which run something like this: its simply good for people to be paid less and for poorer people to have to scrimp and safe to stay in place socio-economically. Exactly why is it good? Well, supposedly, it does something for morality. It teaches people something that will equip them well for life (even if we cannot quite specify what that is or what benefits derive from it).  Said differently, there is here a principled opposition to such things as free tuition but its not at all clear what that principle is based on.

More troubling are some other views I read in CBC news comments as I tried to track down reasons why anyone would think increased accessibility to education was bad. Most of these views actually ignored the question of increased accessibility to education entirely and argued against "free tuition" on other grounds. I might say that these critics said something like "a free tuition policy is not about education" but they didn't actually even say that. Instead, they just ignored the subject and argued other points, including:

1. It is not fair to the middle class (perhaps, but that is an argument to modify the policy; not ditch it).

2. It is a conspiracy of francophones (I won't even say anything because a denial of conspiracy theories, of course, could simply be taken as evidence that I am part of the conspiracy)

3. It should be extended to private institutions (see point 1 ... although I am not 100% certain I agree here, I'd need to think about it)

4. Its good for people to not have money because if they get an education for free, they will not appreciate it.

Point 4 merits just a bit of attention. I say just a bit because the point is silly and contradicted every day in the public school system. The idea behind point 4 is that if you get something for nothing, there is no incentive to work ... but education is *not* overtime pay. The incentive is one's life. I've already commented on the grounds for assessing success or failure of this policy and tried to argue that success is *not* having everyone in university. Students work hard or not because they find education meaningful or they have specific objectives they want to accomplish or they simply take pride in their work, or they want to compete effectively in the job market, among a host of other reasons. My daughter, for instance, does not work less hard because she goes to high school for free. So, to say this -- people have to pay or they won't work hard -- is an odd logic because it seems to assume that there is no payoff to education and ... well ... I guess I simply don't know what to say to that that I have not already said (I should note that there will still be costs to be born by students, too, but we can leave that off and focus on what education is about).

To sum all this up: the arguments against "free tuition" are an odd mishmash of arguments that don't really have much going for them. Regardless of your particular view on "free tuition," I think you'd have to conclude that these arguments against it don't make a lot of sense and are speculative or are actually arguing for an extension of the program; not its elimination (if we followed the logic of the people articulating them).

The final word on free tuition, I think, will be this: the devil will be the details. I think this discussion is a step in the right direction because it is the first innovative idea we've had with regard to post-secondary education in a very long time.
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