Saturday, December 1, 2018

Is there any good reason for tuition fees?

I suppose it depends upon one’s perspective.  University administrators have long argued that, due to the inadequacies of government funding, there is no choice but to charge tuition fees. These administrators have phrase their support of fees and fee increases as a reluctant necessity of life; something that any reasonable person would understand. But there is something more important that tuition fees allow these same administrators: it allows them a form of flexibility that they would not have if they relied directly upon government funding.  This fiscal flexibility is, it would seem, the more fundamental reason that administrators have long supported tuition fees. With regular increases.

Tuition fees are not the only non-government funding that university administrators seek out. Large dollar donors are also high the list of admin wants. The plus 5 - that is, more than 5 million dollar donor- is especially valued. Donors, rather like governments (but without the political oversight) come with wishes and desires. They have their own pet projects and their own vanity that requires being assuaged.  Donors create a climate in which the university can both break free from a democratic government’s policy framework and create a culture of venerating people for their wealth, not their merit.  But this takes us away from the question, “is there any good reason for tuition fees?”

There must be other, better, reasons for tuition beyond simply making up for a lack of government funding.  

There is the market idea that a student is purchasing a commodity - an educational certificate and the accompanying experience. This argument translates education into a transaction between the university as vendor and the student as client mediated by a cash for certificate exchange.  If we were to follow this Milton Friedmanesque logic to it’s end tuition should be allowed to float to the level the market can bear. Advocates of this argument say criticism of tuition is misplaced. They argue that by allowing tuition to rise to it’s appropriate market price a social decision can be made to allocate some of the surplus toward funding meritorious students who lack their own resources. The contemporary variant of this argument says that this way diversity can encouraged (wherein they assume people of colour more likely to be impoverished than the supposedly non-diverse white student). This view combines a paternalizing idea of charity with market moralism - that is those with more deserve more, the unfortunate bright student should be helped up so that they might also become a ‘success’ and join the ranks of the deserving wealthy.

While the Freidmanesque view provides the underlying logic of tuition fees, in actual practice fees have long been tied to a mid-range compromise between market ideals and social expectations.  That is, tying a belief that a student (as a user or consumer) is obligated to pay some portion of their education to the expectation that post secondary should be reasonably accessible to any citizen. This is what justifies holding fees for a category of insider lower than for a category of outsider. This is what justifies the current NDP governments waiving of fees for youth who were wards of the state.  But is this pragmatic balance between a users obligation to contribute with a societies expectation of accessibility really a good reason for keeping tuition fees?  What is the principle that we, as a society, demonstrate in this model of paying for post secondary education?

Contemporary society, more than at any time in the past, expects productive members of society to have some degree of post secondary education. Rare is the job that does not require a certificate or degree be it trades, technical, academic, or professional.  We live within a certificated society and our transforming workforce requires highly educated participants.  Is there not a societal obligation and responsibility to provide our youth and young adults with the appropriate educational background in a way that will not beggar them? I think there is. 

It’s time that we simply abolish tuition fees across the post secondary sector.  Our university leadership can play an important role in facilitating this transformation. They are the ones -from BCIT to Emily Carr to UBC- who have been loudly announcing the benefit, the need for a highly educated workforce ready to move bravely into a new wave of economic transformations.  Post secondary education is now, more than even a necessity.  We no longer expect people to pay for public K-12 education. That argument was settled long ago when it became clear that a high school education was a requirement for an effective labour force; today the first level of post secondary is ever bit as necessary as high school graduation was for our parents.

I will be doing my part of December 5th by voting against tuition increases at UBC. I will also be advocating that our Board of Governors and our university’s president, Santa Ono, explicitly, publicly, and loudly, calls on the government to begin the process of abolishing tuition fees across our post secondary system.