Quebec protesters are helping us see a Canada-wide problem, and solution.
Who are you calling spoiled? Young Quebec protesters are making the case for wider access to higher education, a good idea for many reasons.
Much of the media coverage of the Quebec student protests has dismissed the protestors as cranky middle- and upper-middle class children trying to protect their unfair privilege.
And in fact, the vast majority of today's university students do come from relatively well-off families. But rather than weakening their position, this supports the protestors' claims that we have a serious problem with access to education -- a problem that would only be exacerbated by tuition hikes.
Instead of recognizing this, most media commentary perpetuates a discourse of austerity, demanding that students share the pain that other public service users are suffering.
Here are seven reasons why we would all be better off if we increased public investment in higher education and reduced the burden that high tuition fees impose on students and their families.
1. Making university education more affordable would allow more Canadians to access this key tool for social mobility.
The evidence is clear: university education is a route to considerably higher lifetime earnings and the returns to university degrees have increased over the last 20 years. In fact, education is the greatest equalizer we have. It's the most reliable path to social mobility in a modern society with a knowledge-based economy. Yet, in this time of sharply rising income inequality, this ladder to a better life isn't accessible to all Canadians. This is both unfair and socially unjust.
2. Financial barriers to education impact Canada's economic well-being.
Merit and a desire to learn should determine who goes to university. When the ability to pay becomes a deciding factor, then our country loses the chance to benefit from the skills and capabilities of many of its citizens. And because financial barriers to education reduce social mobility, inequality and poverty will increase, with all the associated social and economic costs to society, including increased health and justice system costs and worsening social tension.
3. Questions of access to education are more important today than ever before because higher education is increasingly becoming a standard job requirement.
While a couple of generations ago university may have been a luxury reserved for the children of the wealthy, in today's world advanced education has a growing impact on people's ability to compete in the labour market, on the types of jobs they obtain, and the incomes they are able to earn.
The BC government's own estimates show that over this decade (2010 to 2020), about 35 per cent of new job openings will require university-level education, while 42 per cent are projected to require non-university post-secondary education, college or trades certificates. In contrast, occupations that require a high-school diploma or lower education will account for less than a quarter (22 per cent) of total projected job opportunities. The figures for Canada as a whole are very similar.
Yet, instead of increasing financial support for higher education, governments have steadily withdrawn from funding universities.
Source: Statistics Canada and CAUBO
It's time to start considering funding higher education through the public purse and making it available to all Canadians the way we do with elementary and secondary education.
4. Student loans don't make up for high tuition fees.
We know this because students from lower income backgrounds continue to be underrepresented in universities despite the availability of student loans. Instead of improving access to education, student loans result in high debt loans for those few youth from lower and modest income families who manage to make it to university against the odds. The average student debt at graduation from a bachelor degree program was $27,000 in 2009.