Low tuition fees and a high-quality post-secondary education are often framed as an either-or scenario. The argument goes that we can either have low fees and low quality, or high fees and high quality. This argument, however, misses the key aspect of public funding and fails to acknowledge how the two must go hand in hand.
In October we discussed in this column the controversy surrounding the University of Winnipeg’s Eco-Kids program stemming from the university’s partnership with Enbridge (an energy company notorious for its disastrous environmental record) to fund the program. While less oily sources of funding have been secured to save the program, it’s time we had a broader conversation around how we pay for post-secondary education.
Canada lags behind the rest of the industrialized world when it comes to public support for post-secondary education. Government funding covers only 57% of college and university education costs, compared with an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average of 68%. What’s so puzzling about this discrepancy is that it does not reflect the priorities of Canadian citizens, a majority of whom believe that investing in social programs like education ought to be a higher priority than tax cuts and deficit reduction. Unfortunately, the current federal government has opted to provide Canada’s wealthiest corporations with billions in corporate tax cuts instead of investing in education, and we’re all paying the price.
Public funding shortfalls result in universities raising user fees including tuition and ancillary fees. Since these are flat fees, with the same cost applied to everyone regardless of their financial situation, students from marginalized communities are discouraged from pursuing education beyond high school. In fact, those from low-income households are less than half as likely to pursue university as those from high-income households. The picture in Manitoba is slightly better than other parts of the country thanks to provincial policies that have kept tuition fees from spiking the same way they have in most other provinces. In spite of this, fees have increased by over 10% since 2009 and average student loans exceed $25,000.
But fees are not the only place institutions turn to when they seek additional funding. There is a growing pressure to secure agreements with corporate sponsors in exchange for a bit of control over the academic agenda. While some might argue that this route is preferable to increasing the financial burden on students, it undermines the essential purpose of universities.
Beyond the recent Eco-Kids debacle, an example of this can be seen in how research is becoming increasingly commercialized, with profits flowing to corporate partners and not to the public. Universities are institutions that exist to serve the public interest and this function is often compromised when corporations are sought to fill funding voids.
Post-secondary education in Canada is funded at both the federal and provincial level, meaning individual provinces have a great deal of influence when it comes to ensuring affordability and quality. The 2014 Manitoba Budget represents an opportunity for the provincial government to build on previous commitments and make higher education a top priority. Populations that are well educated have lower rates of crime and poverty. Reducing student debt levels allows graduates to start a family and participate in the economy sooner. When government decides to invest in post-secondary education, everyone wins.
Bilan Arte is Chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students–Manitoba. She previously served a term as President at the University of Manitoba Students’ Union. Peyton Veitch is the Canadian Federation of Students Liaison Director on the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association board. He is a third year student studying politics and history.