Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tuition reforms create worst of worlds

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Ben Levin and his commission on post-secondary education have got it wrong.

He was mandated by the government to examine university and college education with particular emphasis on student tuition fees. He recommended that the existing system fundamentally remain unchanged, with an increase in tuition fees that will have little effect.

In doing so Levin failed to take the opportunity of breaking new ground while perpetuating all of the inadequacies of the present system. The increase in tuition fees is insufficient to be of any assistance to the institutions of higher learning. The increase will impose an additional burden on students of lower income groups. Students from upper- and middle-income groups will be subsidized to the extent of roughly 75 per cent of the cost of their education.

We are left with the worst of all possible worlds. People who cannot afford a university education are deterred from improving themselves while people who may be able to afford it will be heavily subsidized.

Levin confirms that the majority of people who take advantage of higher education are the more affluent, with exceptions of course.

Levin should have recommended, instead, fully public funding for post-seconday education. High school used to end at Grade 11. Then Grade 12 was provided as an alternative to and the equivalent of first-year university. Thousands of students got a first-year university at public expense, which benefitted us all.

Yet society has stubbornly resisted applying to continued education the principles that we apply to the first 12 years -- that the process of education of the populace benefits society as a whole and society as a whole should pay for it.

Levin and his commission considered the matter in one page of its 57-page report and summarily dismissed it on the same page. But Levin got it wrong! He says that some groups argue that education should be free. I have heard no intelligent person making such an argument. Nothing is free! What I and others have argued is that education is a social desirability and responsibility and should be publicly funded. Levin and his group recommend that tuition fees be high enough to deter mainly lower income groups and low enough as to give upper income groups a healthy subsidy.

To sustain this position the commission trots out the hackneyed argument that the people who get a higher education reap considerable financial benefits and that in any event the tuition fee is not the determining feature of university attendance. It ignores the fact that society is the principal beneficiary of higher education and that people who get a higher income will be taxed accordingly.

I grew up in the North End of Winnipeg among general lower income groups. It was taken for granted by all my classmates that very few of us would get a university education. The cultural imperative was that we would finish high school and get a job. University was for the rich people, and for those who were exceptionally gifted, won scholarships or whose parents and themselves made sacrifices.

Student loans and bursaries have increased accessibility, but that attitude prevails and is encouraged by the tuition system. The somebodies go to universities. The nobodies get a job.

When I raised this matter in the legislature some of my Conservative friends replied that it was only right that people should go to work to earn their tuition fees, as I did. I responded that I thought this was a great idea and suggested university students be required to produce documentation to show that they had worked to earn their tuition fees. The idea was abandoned.

The system of imposing tuitions has nothing to say for it. Paying for higher education publicly would have little immediate effect but, in the long run, would have dramatic effects.

Ireland, a relatively poor country, finances higher education. In Ireland, over a period of time, it will be possible to say that higher education is for everyone. In Manitoba if we continue to follow the principles enunciated by Levin and his commission higher education will still be for the upper and middle classes.

Sidney Green is a Winnipeg lawyer and former NDP cabinet minister.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 7, 2009 A12

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