Fewer students are enrolling in post-secondary education since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Increasing tuition, high debt loads and uncertain COVID-19 learning environments are discouraging young people from pursuing higher education. But what are they missing out on and what is society losing by this disturbing trend?
We know people with higher levels of education – be it from university, college or polytechnic – have higher earning power throughout their lifetime. They have better access to housing, nutrition, and healthcare and live longer, healthier lives. They can afford better educational opportunities for their children and for those who start off with few advantages, post-secondary education represents the best chance at breaking the cycle of poverty.
Society, too, benefits. Increased levels of innovation and creativity are seen in countries where citizens have better access to higher education. People who earn more money as a result of post-secondary education pay more taxes throughout their lifetime, more than paying back the public investment made in their education.
Despite this, government funding for universities and colleges has been decreasing steadily. In Alberta, we have seen a 31 per cent drop in funding over the last five years. Operating grants provided to universities by the provincial government has dropped from 81 per cent to below 50 per cent since the mid-1980s. This is in contrast to Quebec, where funding has increased by 16 per cent in the last five years and the province funds well over half the operating budgets of universities and colleges.
When funding is cut, post-secondary institutions resort to tuition hikes and recruitment of high-paying international students to make up the shortfall. High tuition fees are the biggest barriers to entry into higher education for students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. This only increases the divide between haves and have-nots in our society. Also, inequality on a global level is worsened when exorbitant fees are collected from students coming from lower-income countries – like India and Nigeria – to subsidize Canadian students.
When public funding is reduced, post-secondary institutions increasingly turn to corporations and private donors to fund operations. This results in the public good of higher education becoming more corporatized.
With corporate-style management, high-salaried executives, managers and consultants are hired by post-secondary institutions while cuts are made to operational and faculty positions. Workers suffer from low pay and difficult work conditions, and retiring tenured faculty are replaced by sessional instructors without job security or benefits. Post-secondary institutions also become beholden to their funders allowing corporations and donors to become decision-makers on campus and set the research agenda of universities.
Higher investment by governments and the introduction of a federal Post-Secondary Education Act can limit corporate and private donor control over universities and colleges. Principles such as universality, accessibility, comprehensiveness and public administration, similar to the Canada Health Act, can be specified in this legislation as well as freedom of speech protections for learners, researchers and workers.
Canada ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1976 acknowledging that education was an essential public good that needs to be accessible to all. Canadian officials recognized the right of every person to obtain free primary and secondary education, and promised free post-secondary education. Nearly 50 years later, the latter has not been realized.
However, several countries such as Norway, Denmark, Germany, Ecuador, Venezuela and Cuba provide free post-secondary education. While there is huge disparity in wealth between some of these countries, what they have in common is the political will to act on the understanding that post-secondary education benefits their citizens and their societies.
Tuition fees are considered a regressive tax levied on students because those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds pay relatively more for their education than students from richer families. Progressive taxation on the other hand recognizes that corporations and the wealthy should pay their fair share for public goods like education which has benefited them in accumulating their wealth through their educated workforce.
Free tuition can also be paid for by restructuring current government spending on education tax credits and Registered Education Savings Plans that tend to benefit richer families. Students from low-income families are unable to take advantage of these initiatives and rely on student loans to finance their higher education. With loan interest included, indebted students pay two to three times more for their education than those who were able to pay for their education upfront.
Student loans need to be eliminated and replaced with non-repayable grants for students in need. The government of Newfoundland and Labrador eliminated student loans for an entire cohort of students in 2015 and this allowed them to contribute to the economy sooner upon graduation by starting businesses, working in jobs for which they were qualified and purchasing cars and houses – all milestones they would have had trouble achieving if they were weighed down by high debt loads.
If we don’t act now to bolster the ability of our young people to access post-secondary education, we risk negative economic and societal effects that will continue well into the future. While individual students enjoy the private returns of scholarship, society as a whole reaps the public rewards of wise investment in education.
Vamini Selvanandan is a family physician and public health practitioner in the Bow Valley. Her commentaries appear in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on the third Thursday of each month. For more articles like this, visit www.engagedcitizen.ca.