Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

University: Who pays? Part 2

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Every fall, millions of eager high school graduates flock to university. Only a select handful, however, receives the opportunity for free. These are the cream of the crop, who, either through outstanding academic or athletic achievements or through outstanding community service receive the privilege of attending university without having to pay tuition.

This leaves the majority of the students -- the ones without wealthy parents -- to suffer the financial burden of university tuition and the resulting emotional burden of debt. I believe that eliminating university tuition fees would significantly benefit many students as well as give a boost to the Canadian economy.

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If Canadian tuition fees for university were non-existent, as is the case in Scotland and many European countries such as Norway, Austria and Finland, the burden of being heavily in debt after graduation would be much reduced for students.

Some critics argue that the large costs associated with attending university could actually benefit students. They argue that students will feel motivated to study harder when they have to spend a lot of their own money paying for tuition and other related expenses. Is this cynical view of student motivation really correct? It seems more plausible to suppose that the high cost of university education and the burdensome debt load it generates will distract students and prevent them from focusing on their studies. For one thing, many students are forced to work long hours at drudgery jobs in order to support themselves -- time they could otherwise spend studying. Concern about debt displaces concern about education.

For most students, the decision to go to university is a positive step in their lives. Their desire to pursue an educated career path can show that they have the maturity to think for themselves. If a 16-year-old can be trusted with the task of operating a vehicle on the streets where thousands of Canadians die every year, then there is no reason for an 18-year-old to not be trusted with taking control of their own education and making their own decisions. The truth is that they can focus on their studies without the "incentive" of burdensome debt, they can keep up with the work, and they can better taste success if they don't have to worry about paying high fees.

If university education were to be made free, then there would no doubt be an increase in university attendance, increasing the number of university-educated individuals in our society. The economy will profit greatly from having a larger university-educated population, one that earns more income and remains employed for longer. Consequently, the employment rate will increase as, on average, employment rates of graduates of post-secondary education are about nine per cent higher than those who have only completed secondary education.

Moreover, the age group of 55 to 64 with a degree has an average employment rate of 65.9 per cent compared to only 52.4 per cent for those lacking one. These figures signify that university-educated seniors remain employed for longer, which helps to "ensure more people are economically active" and helps to "alleviate the burden of financing public pension schemes," according to The Economic Benefits of Education, an OECD report released this year.

Some critics would reply that an increase in university attendance would lead either to a costly expansion of universities or to an increase in admission standards. In the case of the former, individuals with a degree will eventually be stuck working dead-end jobs. In spite of the fact that new jobs are being created nearly every day, this may be true. Society as a whole, however, will still benefit, as the maximum number of top jobs will have been taken by individuals with degrees. Additionally, even unemployed or under-employed graduates will benefit from living fuller and more satisfying lives because of their education.

One effect that some may perceive as negative is that in order to make universities free, taxes might have to be increased. I would reply that this is, in fact, a fair trade-off, as free university education is a right to be enjoyed by all, regardless of ability to pay, in the same way that health care is recognized by Canadians as a right rather than simply one more commodity to be purchased in the marketplace by those who can afford it. Since anyone meeting the entrance requirements may reap the rewards, the more egalitarian society that results would be worth the increased taxes. It would be a more egalitarian society, one in which education is distributed according to academic merit and willingness to work hard rather than according to individual or family wealth.

Another benefit from the elimination of university tuition fees is that it would allow individuals who were previously trapped in the lower echelons of society to break free. There are numerous individuals who simply cannot afford, at present, to attend university. Typically, such individuals become trapped in their lower-class status. If they were enabled to receive a university education, they could potentially break out of the endless cycle of poverty and continue to pursue the career of their choice.

Many of these economically deprived individuals may be bright and some may even possess talents that are potentially world-altering. Of course, in opposition to this, one could suggest that such situations as these are precisely what scholarships and bursaries are for. The problem is that the actual amount of worthwhile scholarships and bursaries is insufficient to provide for most, as they are typically aimed at the brightest or most athletic. Some individuals from deprived backgrounds may not be able to express their full academic potential until they reach university.

Ultimately, the implementation of free university education would be greatly beneficial both to the individual and to society as a whole and would contribute to the ideal of equality of opportunity.


Dayakarn Sandhu is a Grade 12 student at Oak Park High School. His supervising teacher was Rob Dalgliesh.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 20, 2013 A15

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