All over my campus there are posters and flyers informing me that post-secondary education is a right, not a privilege, and that I should joint the fight against rising tuition fees. Many places in Canada, where a majority of the universities are public, have recently been protesting against similar hikes in tuition or just to drop current fees.
I live and attend school in Ontario where tuition rates (undergrad and graduate) are the highest in the country. Here are some facts (fun!):
- We have the worst per-student funding in the country
- We have the largest class sizes
- Collective student federal debt in Canada is about $15 000 000 000 (ON student share is about $9 billion)
- Average student debt after graduation = $37 000
- 95% of grad students cannot access an ON graduate scholarship
- More than 25 other countries have some form of free post-secondary education
The situation for my friends south of the border is even worse:
- A collective $1 trillion in student debt
- Average tuition for a 4-year university is about $18 000/year
- Grad school tuition can run from approximately $10 000 (public) to $30 000/year (private)
- More than half of the students in the US have to take out student loans (about 12 million students)
Most of us will still be struggling to repay this debt well into our 30’s (when many are still in school) and 40’s. Coupled with the current economy and poor job market, and the idea of free education becomes very attractive.
Yet as I take a (terrifying) leave from school due mainly to financial difficulties and Matt faces possible exclusion from a master’s program because of a lack of funding, I can’t help but question the idea of higher education as a right and not a privilege.
Sound a little backwards?
Free post-secondary education at the level of a bachelors degree makes complete sense. It has the chance of being economically viable and ensures that everyone receives the opportunity to attend college or university. And at this level education should be a right. Whether it’s trade, business or science, getting a job in today’s market is virtually impossible without some type of degree.
But what about higher degrees at the graduate and professional level? Should these also be fully funded? My personal education is funded through a combination of research grants and assistantships – so I work for the majority of it. Amazingly (to me) this will amount to just under $100 000 in the 5 years I’m here.
Whoa whoa whoa. I feel the need to insert some perspective at this point. $100 000 over 5 years is $20 000/year. Minimum wage in Ontario is $10.25/hour, so a full-time Starbucks barista or Wal-mart cashier will make $21,320/year – in other words her highly specialized, high value research position is costing her $1320 a year. Not only that, but over that same time she’ll give $40 000 to the school for tuition, and a significant portion of the rest back to the government repaying some of that undergrad debt mentioned above. Add to that the college’s restrictions on TA hours and off-campus employment and she might actually be making less than nothing to expand the sphere of human knowledge. /perspective
Wait – what?
So I’m still unable to manage without working off campus and maintaining a very restrictive diet (Kraft dinner anyone?). But seeing as I chose this educational path, does that automatically qualify me for support? Do I have a right to this degree? Unfortunately, the current view of higher education seems to say no. Graduate students are expected to supplement their research income mainly by applying for external grants and scholarships. And while this is not an unreasonable expectation, what happens to those of us who are unsuccessful or don’t qualify? The many who are denied government loans because they are being ‘paid by the school’ and yet also don’t have access to private loans? How does the system work for us? What is scientific research and higher education really worth to us as a society and how can we ensure it’s future?