What right to an education?

Free higher education for all is not only inefficient, but also regressive


Go to any student protest and you’re likely to hear something along the lines of “Education is a right,” often coupled with “We will not give up the fight.” The implication is clear, receiving a post-secondary education is an entitlement that every individual has for no other reason than the simple fact that they exist. The government (federal or provincial — no one is really sure) by not subsidizing it in its fullest is, apparently, violating our human rights. I suspect it is only a matter of time before someone publicly accuses the government of crimes against humanity.

Once something has entered into the rights discourse, arguing against it becomes a sort of blasphemy. Some rights advocates, the true believers that they are, accept the right as a given and are often clueless as to how to defend their favoured interests.

For example, when the York Federation of Students cancelled a debate to be held by the debating society on the morality of abortion, spokesperson Kelly Holloway argued that the Supreme Court has ruled abortion to be a women’s right and “that’s good enough for me.” Apart from being wholly bizarre such deference to a state institution for a self-proclaimed progressive like Holloway, is illustrative of the deification of human rights.

This deification is evident in the Canadian Federation of Students’ Declaration of Students Rights which they take to be “undeniable” to “all students globally” and include among other things, the right to “an accessible, high quality education at all levels.”

In their policy document, the CFS defines an accessible education as one that “should allow the individual student to pursue the education of her choice.” Referring to the “education of her choice” is to omit the important caveat of merit, which is to say they mean it when proclaiming education is a right.

Cordoning off certain types of education only for those suited to it, would be to recognize that, say university, is a privilege reserved for those with certain intellectual capabilities. Never mind that virtually no one denies the fact that if you got the grades, you get to go even if this requires us to subsidize you. But this isn’t enough for our student advocates. Nope, you want to go, you get to go simply because you breathe.

As much as this might make us feel good, there is no way to justify this conception of rights without appealing to contemporary moral intuition, the musings of political philosophers who have picked rights out of the air, or to the existence of some supernatural being.

However, rights are nothing more than a political mechanism to provide an extra degree of protection for socially valuable interests, either through a bill or charter of rights, or through common law convention. Governments respect rights because of the value they provide to citizens (they improve our lives) and because of their value to society (say to promote the stability of a liberal democracy).

Choosing which interests to protect is the result of the educative process characteristic of social and political development, and their protection is often weighed against their cost. For instance, the right to vote comes with the significant financial costs associated with running an election, but it is a cost we have deemed worthwhile, but not so worthwhile that we hold elections every year, or referenda on every imaginable topic. To do so would be to divert resources away from other governmental obligations. Plainly speaking, rights have to be justified to deserve special protection, and the degree they are to be protected is often a matter of available resources.

When was the last time someone gave an articulate reason why post-secondary education should be free? Sure, lip service is often paid to the benefits of an educated populace to society, but the intimation remains the same, charging for school is immoral. And one might add, having minimum entrance requirements is also immoral, perhaps doubly so. We can always subsidize education, but you can’t subsidize natural talents.

In no country, however, where higher education is fully subsidized have entrance requirements disappeared. In fact, they might even be higher to ensure state funds are spent on those with the greatest chance of success, and because to subsidize everyone regardless of personal talent and capabilities would require the investment of the sort that would cripple the state’s ability to maneouver in other areas of responsibility. So higher education, even where it is free, remains a privilege.

Full subsidization is neither efficient or progressive. It is not efficient in that it requires an enormous level of resources to subsidize an education that many can afford, and so funds would be best served elsewhere. It is not progressive because it provides the same subsidy for those from well-off backgrounds as it does for those from poorer backgrounds. It is by definition regressive. Can someone please explain to me why this is fair? Or exactly why governments should use resources in this way?

Free education advocates might point to state subsidization for primary and secondary school. The state is obligated, most would agree, to not only provide an education for children but to compel parents to send their children to school. It is not in the interests of the rights of the child per se, but in the interests of the adult he/she will become. In order for adults to exercise their autonomy and make appropriate choices, it is important that they be endowed with a minimal level of education so that they may function in a modern economy and participate in a liberal democracy.

But this cannot be true of higher education, because not only can we not compel adults to go, but that the function of lower levels of education is more basic, than the often career oriented aspects of post-secondary education. If one could credibly argue, in a country where upwards of 40 per cent of the 18-24 cohort goes to university, that students are not being suitably prepared to function in society the focus should be on primary and secondary education. To argue that higher education is an entitlement is only marginally different than arguing if I want to be a doctor than I have the right to be.

Call me an elitist but a higher education is not a right, and nor should it be.

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What right to an education?

  1. I believe the right to education comes right out of the international declaration of human rights, actually. The declaration holds that primary education is mandatory, fundamental education should be free, and higher education should be accessible to all with the only restriction being merit.

    “Article 26.

    (1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

    (2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

    (3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.”

    I doubt the CFS means to rule out merit or ability by suggesting students should have the “choice” whether to pursue engineering vs. teaching certification. After all, women were once restricted as to what course to take (home economics, please, ladies!), regardless of merit. I think the CFS declaration can be taken in the spirit of suggesting such discriminatory practices are wrong.

  2. To claim something as a right because UN declaration of human rights says so is not an argument, it is a fall back when one can think of reasons why something should be recognized as an argument. We might as well claim certain things as rights because they are in a religious text.

    If you don’t rule out merit or expecially ability, then my point is confirmed, that higher education is a privilege for those with certain capabilities.

  3. Well to be fair, all rights have limits. Having the right to public healthcare doesn’t mean we all get triple bypasses if we don’t need them. The right to free speech is limited when it comes to things like hate speech.

    But they’re still basic rights in Canada. By signing a UN declaration, the Canadian government instituted education as one of those human rights too. Having the right to education means things like your personal wealth, gender, race, physical (dis)ability, etc. shouldn’t prohibit you from getting as much academic education as you want.

    Your argument is all over the place, because first you’re saying education IS NOT a right in Canada – despite our government signing international treaties to the contrary, and then you say it shouldn’t be one.

    So there are two issues at stake: 1) Is education recognized as a right? and 2) Should education be a right?

    You shouldn’t get mad at the initial poster for answering Yes to question #1 by going ahead and attacking her with your views of No for question #2.

  4. Nowhere do I deny that lower levels of education are a part of our basic rights, and that is as it should be. Higher education, however, is not a right and it shouldn’t be.

    My point with the first poster was the comment:

    “I believe the right to education comes right out of the international declaration of human rights, actually.”

    This does not justify anything. To say because something is recognized as a right somewhere and therefore that recognition is justified, fails to address why it is recognized or whether it should be recognized. Because something is so, does not mean it should be so. I’m asking for reasons not appeals to legal documents.

    That said, the bits cited from the international declaration of rights do not appear to deal with higher education.

  5. to add, Canada’s recognition of the right to a basic (ie: primary and secondary( education is exclusive to any treaties we have signed on to. To appeal to such international agreements as the basis for rights recognition without providing further justification is to tacitly admit, that if Canada had not signed onto to such agreements, or if such agreements didn’t exist, then the Canadian government would not be obligated to recgonize basic education as a right.

  6. I don’t lack reasons for my support for human rights, and I am not trying to “justify” anything.

    “Education as a human right” is part of a large, very mainstream belief system. It is an idea that has been subject to debate and treaties on an international scale.

    Your article, in contrast, attempts to marginalize the idea of “education as a human right” by framing the idea as a mere slogan from irrational (in your view) activists, some of whom weren’t even discussing education (i.e. the pro-choice activists you quoted).

    It is my opinion you are incorrect in doing this, and I think the fact that education is part of the International Declaration of Human Rights is adequate demonstration of that. I hardly think this indicates any religious zeal on my part.

  7. Maybe I should discuss this post more in detail when I have the time, but I’ll make two quick comments as I think of them:

    – You seem to say Kelly Holloway is a spokesperson for the YFS, yet as far as I know she is the president of the Graduate Students’ Association at York. You might want to verify that.

    – You say: “In their policy document, the CFS defines an accessible education as one that “should allow the individual student to pursue the education of her choice.” Referring to the “education of her choice” is to omit the important caveat of merit, which is to say they mean it when proclaiming education is a right.”

    I am not sure what is meant by merit, but I suppose you mean that the student has the academic qualifications for attending a given program.

    Also, even if that is not 100% identical with the CFS declaration you quoted, but the position that I’ve seen a lot of student politicians take concretely goes along the following lines: if there is limited space in post-secondary education, the determining factor of who gets in should not be how wealthy they or their family are. Said otherwise, we should tend to a situation where students of equal academic “merit” and from families of different income should have an equal chance.

    Now, if we agree with that stated goal (and maybe we don’t), then we can start the more precise debate of whether subsidizing the universities is compatible with the stated goal. But I think it’s worth putting this forward, because the argument of equal chance for equal academic capacity works even when resources are limited or very limited.

  8. Is this opinion piece, in fact, moronic? Or is it just a rhetorical shell-game of semantics? “Education is a right.” Some people believe that, and you apparently don’t. So what?

    I’ll tell you what’s regressive: blind adherence to neoliberal doctrine that seeks to privatize everything that should be public.

    Elitist? Maybe. Moronic? I think that’s more befitting.

    You asked: “When was the last time someone gave an articulate reason why post-secondary education should be free?” Here’s one: because a “user pay” system deepens inequality.

    The experience in the UK is instructive. “[S]tudent funding in the past largely benefited the middle class, in that they were the main people to enter higher education. The new arrangements [i.e., tuition fees and loans] can then be seen as progressive in that the public subsidy to those who are better off is reduced. However, … despite the increased numbers in higher education, the proportion from lower social class groups has hardly increased. … Crucially, the effect of the Labour government’s policy is that ‘the financial burden is far greater for low-income students than for high-income students.’ Thus … the policies [i.e., tuition fees and loans] are regressive, in that the least well-off students benefit the least.”

    Source: Higher Education and Social Class, 2003 (ISBN 0415276446)

  9. Your argument is bang-on, Carson. Well done!

  10. Having already discussed the question of merit/privilege above (considering that one can argue that people of equal capabilities but different financial situations should have equal chance), I think it would be worth to get to the other point of Carson’s argument, that is, that a bulk subsidy to the university is unefficient and regressive. Carson’s point is summarized in one paragraph:

    “Full subsidization is neither efficient or progressive. It is not efficient in that it requires an enormous level of resources to subsidize an education that many can afford, and so funds would be best served elsewhere. It is not progressive because it provides the same subsidy for those from well-off backgrounds as it does for those from poorer backgrounds. It is by definition regressive. Can someone please explain to me why this is fair? Or exactly why governments should use resources in this way?”

    I don’t think Carson’s argument, if it stood, would be specific to “full subsidization”. There is no reason why one couldn’t argue the same thing about “partial subsidization” (which is basically a weaker form of the same policy). In fact, many people use the same argument to say that there should be no subsidization of universities, i.e. that financial aid should be delivered directly to students based on income, etc.

    The difference between partially or fully subsidizing education is a matter of how much resources the state has at a given time. But the argument here is different. However, if subsidizing education (in the form of block grants to university, which is the concrete thing Carson is argumenting about) is unefficient and regressive, it would be unefficient and regressive no matter the “level” at which it is applied.

  11. Ok, so part 1: Is it exact that “It is not efficient in that it requires an enormous level of resources to subsidize an education that many can afford, and so funds would be best served elsewhere.”

    Let’s move away from abstractions and see who we are concretely talking about here. Whose resources are spent? Taxpayer money. Who could “afford the education” if there was subsidy? Mostly, children from parents who are in the upper-middle class. But these upper-middle class parents are precisely those who contribute the most to the government’s revenues, since the tax system is progressive! So to lower their taxes and give them back almost the exact same sum of money that they would repay to the university, has no benefit for them.

    Of course, the difference if you subsidize it through taxes is that upper-middle class taxpayers without children, or whose children don’t go to university, get to subsidize other people’s education. Is that fair? Maybe it is… after all, when they retire, it will be these other children who got through PSE that will pay the bulk of the taxes to the state to pay for the previous generation’s healthcare and pensions. The inter-generational transfer element of the subsidy was completely ignored in Carson’s text.

    Also, about efficiency, one could argue that is it more efficient for the government to send a block grant to the university than to deal with individual students for financial aid.

    Finally, if the government would provide only financial aid to the students and no subsidy to the universities, the universities would become virtually, if not concretely private. Universities only need to be accountable to the general public because they are funded mostly by public funds. You can be for or against that accountability link, but it’s important to keep in mind that it will be lost without that subsidy.

  12. Part 2: Progressivity… it is true that “it is not progressive because it provides the same subsidy for those from well-off backgrounds as it does for those from poorer backgrounds.”

    If that were true, it would mean that public healthcare is also regressive… doesn’t everyone get the same service irrespective of their background? (Here we neglect the financial aid for lower-income students, which might be an error if the variables are not independent).

    Let’s go a bit deeper there. Again, we won’t consider important the aspect of inter-generation transfer, which I already discussed above. We’ll limit ourselves to the question raised by Carson. Is the subsidy to PSE a net transfer from the poor to the rich, or the reverse? That seems like the appropriate question to ask there, if one is worried about “progressivity”.

    The transfer, of course, is cost – benefit… the benefit is shared equally by all students, like Carson pointed out. So if you take a specific income class, their share of the benefit is proportional to the percentage of this income class in participation to post-secondary education. Of course, we know that higher income classes still participate more, so they get a bigger share of the benefit. (Keep in mind of course that there is a feedback loop here, because participation is affected by the level of subsidy.)

    What about the cost? As we all know, higher income classes contribute more to the tax system.

    I’m sorry this is getting into such a long post, but at least, it should make it obvious to all of us that this is not a problem you can only solve in one abstract sentence, like Carson is attempting. You need data. The higher income class contributes more to the system, and they also benefit more from it. What of the two effects predominate? Is there still a net transfer to the poor because the higher income class still pays an even higher share of the cost that the share they get from the benefits.

    I saw at least one study (from the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives) showing there is a net transfer to the poor, but if people saw studies to the contrary (i.e. the rich pay less in tax that they get in benefits) please let us know.

  13. This is a firecracker topic waiting to explode, and I tend not to throw my views around, but just this once I’ll make an exception. Access to education is certainly a right, and I don’t believe Carson even meant to attack that proposition. What he’s questioning is whether or not adherence to the idea that all education should be free is the best way to advance access to education, for all, as an agenda.

    We recognize universal access to decent housing as a fundamental human right, yet we don’t seem to advocate the best way to advance that goal is to give everyone, regardless of income, a free home. We recognize that access to food and a healthy diet is a fundamental human right, and yet we still charge at our grocery stores. True, we run food banks (inadequately) but I haven’t yet heard anyone advocate that all food should be free to all people in society. At least, not in mainstream political circles.

    A right of universal access to education is very important. Obviously, some people feel the best way to advance this agenda is to make all education free for everyone. I’m not prepared to say they are wrong, at this time. But I will say it’s entirely possible to believe in a right of universal access to education and -not- believe that the best way to advance this goal is to make all education free for everyone. We do it all the time already, in reference to other human rights.

    Finally, I will agree with Carson’s point that there is, like it or not, a merit-based component to access that must kick in at some point. We can argue back and forth from a variety of sincerely held and reasonable opinions about -where- that should become a factor, and to what degree, but it needs to kick in at some point before we admit all of the ten thousand students who start first year chemistry, every year, with the intention of becoming doctors, all the way into medical school. Should every single person who wishes to attend university (regardless of ability to benefit or cope) be allowed to attend? Interesting question. At one point high school was geared to only one academic standard (a high one) and there were no alternative programs. Clearly that idea has shifted over time. I’m not prepared to say another shift isn’t appropriate. But again, it’s reductive and unproductive to simply ignore the issues, and say “universal access to all education for everyone” without even confronting the complications implied by that statement. When you do that, you offer only a fun slogan, rather than a coherent policy, and you invite everyone who sees the problems you’ve ignored to ignore you in turn.

  14. Carson, interesting editorial. I generally agree but you have definitely mixed several separate issues together. There’s a thesis worth of issues stemming from the question, “Is education a right?” Are human rights declarative or grounded in natural law? Do positive rights exist? Can something be called a right if it is unenforceable? And in this particular case, if education is an enforceable human right, at what point is that positive state obligation satisfied?

    Is education a right? Sure it is, if you believe that rights need not be grounded in natural law nor enforceable. Maybe it is if you don’t care about its enforceability. Though if it is simply declarative, what method of declaration makes it legitimate? Are all declarations of rights equal? Do my Charter rights trump the UN Declaration of Human Rights? Where do my Burger King rights fit in?

    Unfortunately these are complex questions that aren’t easily addressed in 500 words. Still, I applaud the effort.

  15. Carson is right to shut down such talk of the international declaration of human rights. It is a textbook appeal to authority fallacy. The last time I checked, the UN declaration has no force in Canada – no-one has been taken to court over violating it.

    One of the important points that education-as-a-right advocates rarley touch on or discuss is “how much education is a right?” Carson, and the UN, both agree that primary education is not just a right, but fundamental to the proper functioning of society. What makes advocates of free university (or at least, affordable to the point of denigration) believe that post-secondary also falls into this category? I await with baited breath a well-reasoned answer to this question, though I doubt I will ever hear one.

    While I agree with Carson overall, I have to admit I disagree with one of the fundamental points of this article, and if some of the critics were intelligent enough to get beyond ad hominem attacks (*cough cough* Rick!), this would be a much better avenue of attack. Carson frames the rights discussion in terms of simple pragmatics, that “rights are nothing more than a political mechanism to provide an extra degree of protection for socially valuable interests”. While it is true that rights certainly serve the prupose of “protecting socially valuable interests”, I reject the notion that they are “nothing more”.

    The proper argument for this would fill pages and pages of esoteric material, but the punchline is that our enshrinement of rights in such things as bills, etc is merely our recognizing the existence of some higher ideals. That it is, for instance, wrong to kill another human being, not just because it is detrimental for the proper functioning of society, but because it is fundamentally wrong.

    Why is it fundamentally wrong? That I will leave as an exercise for the reader, or perhaps someone who actually disagrees with Carson’s conclusion to tackle.

  16. Wow – this argument developed a geat deal in sparse time between when I read the ream of posts and when I made my own comment. Feel free to take apropriate liberties with my own post considering I had not yet read Spencer’s or Jeff’s.

  17. Rick wrote “The experience in the UK is instructive . . . blah, blah selective quotation that superfically fits with CFS talking points.”

    Earth to Rick: yes, higher tuition without any assistance for the poorest among us is most certainly regressive. You had to read a book from the UK to figure that out? Thank god for the English!

    Suggesting that a tuition freeze/reduction somehow helps the poorest is at best nieave, and at worst just plain ignorant. I hope you have an opportunity to read some economics in your degree program.

  18. Jeff: I think “fully subsidized education” (by taxes), as Carson put it, is better than saying “free education”, as we all know it’s not free. The debate is really about who pays for it.

    Also, as I pointed out above I think Carson’s argument, whether he admits it or not, is one against partial subsidization (like we have now) as well as full subsidization. Right now, the block grant from the government to the university benefits all students equally, regardless of their income class. If anything which benefitted all students equally was regressive, as Carson argues, the progressive thing to do would be to eliminate block grants completely and only distribute financial aid to individuals as a function of their income class.

  19. Travis,

    OUCH! I concede I made a fallacy of appeal to authority in my second post… I have fallen into the trap of trying to counter such a fallacy with a similar fallacy. To me, Carson’s original argument reads like this:

    Refusing to debate issues is irrational.
    The YFS activists shut down a debate on abortion.
    Therefore YFS activists are irrational.

    Further, the YFS activists make “rights arguments” when they shut down debate on abortion.
    Therefore all rights arguments are irrational.

  20. 1) Stacy: I used the York case not so much because they shut down the debate, but because Holloway defended it by appealing to the supreme court and stating “that’s good enough for me.” It was an EXAMPLE to highlight how some people view rights as being sacred. Dead giveaways that the York case was only meant as an illustrative example, are words and phrases like “for example” and “illustrative.” I could use other examples to make the same point. In fact I do use other examples, like I don’t know, education, which was the subject of the post.

    2) Ignoring Rick “I am doing a PhD in sociology” Telfer

    3) Philippe (your first comment): You’re right that not all people advocating for access issues want to do away with merit. I could have developed this further in my original post, so thanks for the comment.

    Calling higher education a right is incoherent unless we do away with merit or capabilities, or some minimal standard of entrance. So long as anybody concedes that higher education should be provided based on some level of capability, it is a privelege.

    A right is something granted to all people regardless of personal characterisitcs. This is as true of negative rights (privacy, expression etc.) as it is of positive rights (basic education, basic health care etc.).

    We might say, one’s wealth shouldn’t be the deciding factor because of some appeal to fairness, and I would agree with that. We could also concede that we all have the right to pursue any career we want, but that is not the same thing as having a right to an education. If I want to be lawyer, I have the right to pursue such a goal. But if I can’t bring my high school grades up to a level even to get into a bachelor’s program, I can’t complain that my rights are being violated.

    Now, if when people say education is right,they mean a right the way we understand most rights, in that they are (or rather should be) granted to all equally, then that is a position that is pursuing some sort of utopia. That said, given the low entrance requirements to get into university in Canada, coupled with comparatively low tuition fees, as well as the availability of grants and loans, Canada is probably as close to that utopia as there exists.

    4) Spencer and Travis: You guys are right in that my discussion on whether education is a right leads to a host of other interesting questions, but I will leave that for now. But thank you for your comments.

  21. I quite enjoyed reading your piece, Carson. Kudos on a well crafted story.

    FWIW, I think the CFS has no hope of articulating or even perhaps comprehending a moral framework which illuminates the relationship between students, education, and society. And the expression “education is a right” rubs me the wrong way too.

    But this is funny, probably because it’s true of any halfway serious conception of rights:

    “[T]here is no way to justify this conception of rights without appealing to contemporary moral intuition, the musings of political philosophers who have picked rights out of the air, or to the existence of some supernatural being.”

    So what justifies your conception of rights? It seems you believe them to be a governmental instrument which protects societal interests. What determines which interests, or how to best protect those interests? (Do women have the right to be independent from men? Do we protect married women by granting their fathers permission to flog their husbands? Or do we protect them by granting the right to divorce, etc.? Or perhaps even more general rights to equality are required!) Aren’t contemporary moral intuition, political philosophy, and even the religious norms we’ve inherited likely to play a role in determining the rights themselves? Don’t both moral intuition and political philosophy justify your conception of rights?

    All the same, good fun!

    Stacy, you’re right about the way Carson abused the example:

    Take a clear case of misusing rights speech (the YFS comment) and condemn it. Especially a clever case like the YSF where ‘rights’ talk was used to shut down a debate.

    This allowed Carson to covertly argue that the use of “education is a right” by the CFS is a disservice to debate about education, and helped to demonstrate the perplexing conclusion this kind of talk impairs the CFS’s possibility of coming to know the correct relationship between post-secondary education and society.

    The reader was encouraged to make the inference by his clever use of the metaphor of ‘deification’.

    The YFS’s use of “abortion is a right” is still political: Carson shows them using it to shut down debate. We all agree “abortion is a right” does not entail “debating abortion is wrong”. (It may be wrong to debate it, but that is an entirely different debate.)

    The CFS’s use of “education is a right” is obviously political, to encourage Canadians to consider education a right. But do they use it to shut down debate? Probably, but not the debate about whether education is a right.

    Phillipe’s engagement here in discussing the legitimacy of ‘rights’ talk proves that “education is a right” is not understood as a debate stopper in the CFS. At least, no more a debate stopper than say: “Freeze tuition fees!”

    Thus, Carson’s comparison of the YFS to the CFS is not cogent, because it makes a straw man of the CFS position.

    Also, Travis, it is unfair to characterize Stacy’s appeal the the UN as a fallacy. As she points out in her second comment, the rights enshrined in UN declarations are strong evidence to a broad or at least considered approval of ‘rights’ speak in education. While it is a textbook example of “appeal to authority”, it is a valuable authority to cite exactly because it gives a highly regarded or notable opinion. Collecting these opinions and weighing their merits is good normative philosophy because it allows us to learn from others when they are right, and learn from their mistakes when they are wrong. For the same reason judges collect laws and judgements in order to deliberate correctly.

  22. Hi Philippe. I’m perfectly willing to talk about this as “fully subsidized education (by taxes)” as you put it, and I agree that’s probably more honest as a policy analysis. It absolutely is about who is going to pay, as you say. Look, this can really be turned two different ways. If you imagine a truly progressive tax structure that genuinely taxes the wealthy and the well off enough to fund education for everyone who can’t afford it (along with the children of the wealthy and well off) then you can roll all of those taxes into a system of free post-secondary education and I certainly won’t complain. But experience has shown that no government in Canada really has the balls for that.

    So instead, we end up with a compromise where we (theoretically) inflate the cost of education for those who can pay (as an indirect tax on the “haves” – which unfortunately falls on their children rather than the ones who really “have”) and use it to subsidize access for those who can’t pay. Now, I don’t think anyone is going to argue that either approach can, in a theoretical sense, guarantee access for those who otherwise can’t afford it. The models can be drawn on paper and explained. The question we argue over is which does, in practice, actually work better.

    I think that’s about as far as I’m willing to air my opinions on this. My only intention, initially, was to demonstrate that it’s perfectly consistent to support universal access and still believe some people should pay for it. And incidentally, with reference to my earlier examples, we can also talk about free housing for all, or free groceries for all, as “fully subsidized housing/groceries (by taxes).” The substitution of terminology doesn’t really change the essential point.

  23. Arguing that to require a degree of capability makes something a special privilege as opposed to a right is ludicirous. Everything requires a degree of capability. Walking requires the capability to move your legs and maintain your balance. Does this mean that walking is therefore a special privilege? Of course not. Similarly, this is a silly semantic game Carson is playing to try to dispense with the notion of “Education as a Right”. I’m not arguing whether it is or isn’t, personally, because I think that’s the wrong way to look at it in the first place.

    So lets look at some of the other things. Fully subsidized education is, according to Carson, inefficient, and therefore should not be used. However, this same argument can also be applied to various things such as primary and literacy education, things which we as a society understand have so much benefit we subsidize them fully even when there are parents able to fully fund their own children’s educations. With this in mind, the question becomes clearer — are the benefits to society great enough that fully subsidizing post-secondary education makes sense?

    Personally, I’ve seen a lot of arguments that it does based on the benefits society receives from post-secondary graduates in the form of higher contributions to society (through taxes, volunteerism, productivity, and entrepreneurship) and lower claims upon society (through unemployment, welfare, and health-care). Similarly, I’ve seen very few arguments that say it does not, especially if they take into account all of the above.

    To say we’re as close to “utopia” as there exists simply points out a paucity of knowledge. He may want to examine the system in Ireland.

  24. Tonno, you’re right. Who needs scholarly references? Now, quite apart from Carson’s explicit request for a counter-argument, which he is overtly ignoring, I must agree with you. Nobody needs a textbook to identify elitism and neoliberalism — which is the ideological foundation underlying everything I’ve seen written by Carson. No wonder he hates the Canadian Federation of Students; the Federation works, daily, to fight such anti-equality ideology.

  25. To start with an aside: branding anything written in Macleans as ‘neoliberal’ is pretty silly. Macleans is now just about the most right wing rag in Canada. Elitist? Sure. But education is much more important than even my own trite political remark.

    I propose that free higher education is simply a good investment. It’s good business! Whether a ‘privilege’ or a ‘right’, access to free higher education is just common sense.

    Education of any kind creates a ‘pool’ of knowledge. The more we expand this pool of knowledge, the more we increase invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Interconnected, the latter three are the engine of wealth creation. Regardless of our political stripes, we need wealth to make our society function on all levels. We need it for health care, for education, for the arts, for our legal system, for infrastructure, for everything in a caring Canadian society. Free higher education is our society’s investment in that budding inventor, innovator, or entrepreneur who will produce a phenomenal return on our investment. It does not matter what endeavour or field this invention, innovation, or entrepreneurship occurs in, because society as a whole will benefit. Our investment in free higher education is simply: Money well spent!

    With today’s exorbitant fees and tuitions necessary to obtain a higher education, we are missing many an “Einstein”, so to speak. These are obstacles and they serve only to proportionately shrink our pool of knowledge. Other countries, like India for instance, are expanding their pool of knowledge at a high rate. They’ll soon be running circles around us in wealth creation. It will be at our peril, if we fail to make free higher education happen!

    We constantly shoot ourselves in the feet, productivity and wealth creation wise, by thinking of training and education as “costs”. In fact, financing these activities is an investment, not a cost. The faster we provide free education at all levels, the better it will be for society. Arguing about semantics will not get this job done. We just need to: Do it!

    Carson’s argument makes no economic sense whatsoever.

  26. Carson, I would like to congratualte you for saying what I have long belived. I myself am a high school student and as much as I would like to go to university for free I realize that everything in society comes at a cost. One point that you negletced to mention in your post is that the number of people who spend thier whole lives in post secondary insitituions, Profesional students as they are sometimes called, will multiply exponentially if higher education is free. These are people who are not working on a masters or Phd but rather the ones who don’t have a bachlors degree, diploma, certificate, anything. They take places away from those who want to be there to learn and eventually get a job and the only thing that gets them off of the campus is the fact that they no longer have any money, if Post sec, was free they would never leave.

  27. Kevin: It would be fairly easy to access information about level of tuition fees vs. average time spent to complete a degree. So you should provide something concrete to back your claim that there is a correlation between less tuition fees and more time to degree completion, else it’s just speculation.

  28. There is no way whatsoever to make higher education “free” K-12 education is not “free” and it never will be. Taxpayers, regardless of wealth, will pay for it. In fact, it raises the other argument argument, if I am paying tuition now, why should I pay for those who come after me to receive “free” tuition. I’m not going to be reimbursed for what I have paid.

    Higher education is not a right, plain and simple. If one utilizes a useful degree in an industry offering jobs they can more than cover the costs of their education. It’s an investment in oneself that if managed carefully pays great dividends.

    Tuition cuts and freezes do not make education more affordable – if anything they lower the value of education by depriving schools of resources which they need to provide a proper education. BC’s last tuition freeze did far more damage than it helped.

    Controlled increases yes – but freezes or cuts would be an incredibly stupid move. It’s why I want out of the CFS – they just don’t get it.

  29. Earth to Rick! The CFS represents its members interests in their freeze tuition campaigns. Because the CFS focuses its energies exclusively on getting a few bucks for the middle and upper class crowd currently on university campuses, it is the CFS itself that promotes anti-equality ideology. The truth is they don’t give a shit about the poor. Of course, brainwashed hackswho have been towing the CFS line and working for it for more than a decade don’t get this. They think anti-poverty advocates are right-wingers.

  30. Tuition cuts and freezes do make education more affordable, by definition.

    To say that they lower the value of education is completely ignoring that post-secondary institutions have two major sources of funds. Tuition is one, true, but government is the other. If government doesn’t step up to the plate to cover the increasing costs, then yes, a tuition freeze can hurt the institution. But that’s not a fault of the tuition freeze in itself, rather more a fault of poor planning on the part of the government that imposed a tuition freeze without being willing to cover it.

    That said, I still don’t really like the idea of a freeze, but let’s at least be honest about what it does.

  31. Ken Gelok, “neoliberal” ideology refers to the idea system that promotes:
    (1) individualism;
    (2) free market via privatization and deregulation; and,
    (3) decentralization.

    (Definition taken from Sue McGregor of Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.)

    So, far from being “silly,” I would suggest that the definition is perfectly suited for Carson’s conservative rants. And I agree: Maclean’s = right-wing rag.

    Meghan: I’m sorry. You are? I find it interesting that so many individuals post their unfounded/unsupported opinions/claims without identifying themselves. Easy to flame when you’re anonymous, eh?

  32. Quote:
    “Free higher education for all is not only inefficient, but also regressive”
    “Full subsidization is neither efficient or progressive. It is not efficient in that it requires an enormous level of resources to subsidize an education that many can afford, and so funds would be best served elsewhere. It is not progressive because it provides the same subsidy for those from well-off backgrounds as it does for those from poorer backgrounds. It is by definition regressive. Can someone please explain to me why this is fair? Or exactly why governments should use resources in this way?”

    First of all, you assume education takes “an enormous level of resources to subsidize”. Not necessarily so. It’s all in how those resources are used. For example, do we really need LCD or plasma TVs in the hallways of some universities? Surely you can agree that these TVs in the hallways (which often show advertisements I might add) are not relevant or in any way essential to the educational experience of students.

    Also, you might want to think about examining your target of disapproval (“free” higher education) in greater detail before you disapprove it so strongly. Can you please provide concrete examples of “regression” in countries where there is “free” higher education? Did it result in a mass of people who are not “intellectually capable” being “granted” access?
    Personally, I think success in studies is much more a matter of hard work and dedication rather than “intellectual capability”. Also, if you know, can you please tell me how exactly you go about measuring one’s “intellectual capability”?

    Thanks for reading my comment.

  33. The problem is – education is not free. Just by saying something should be free does not build buildings or pay professors. We all pay for it through both taxes and through tuition. Society pays its fair share to help out students while making them carry only some of the burden. And to be quite frank, post-secondary education resources are wasted on too many people already – the lazy people who don’t want to be there, who will never bother cracking a text book and who make the rest of our degrees worth far less in the eyes of employers. The only rights people have is right to equality of access. And trust me, everyone can access government loans or bank loans and if they put a little work into it, they can even pay them back.

  34. Pingback: McGuinty, the CSA AND Maclean’s Miss the Mark on Textbook Grant : The Ryerson Free Press

  35. The problem as I see it is that people don’t understand what rights are anymore.

    Rights are derived from property ownership and do not include material things. I don’t have a “right” to any material things that I don’t own, including YOUR labor (‘free’ education). I don’t have a “right” to your health care services, your food, your educational instruction, your welfare funds or anything else that I don’t own.

    I have the right to life, liberty and property. I have the right to protect these things, with force as necessary, if these rights are infringed upon. I have the right to cook my own food (or throw it away, or give it away, or charge people for it thereby transferring ownership), I have the right to unlimited contract… but my rights CAN NOT infringe up on others or their property.

    Simple concept, but so few seem to understand it.

  36. To those folks that think merit based entrance requirements violate a right remember this: such requirments ensure that those people most likely to suceed in the particular discipline are those people whom get the opportunity to study the discipline. If we simply allowed everyone to enter university regardless of intellectual ability we do them a disservice. Assuming that he hold our academic standards constant, those additional people who are let in despite the fact that they don’t meet the minimum requirement are those people who are most likey to fail. Not only does this mean that educational resources that could have been used on the remaining students were wasted but it also means that those students who failed have wasted a year or more of their life instead of pursuing something that they can be sucessful at and something that they are likely to enjoy.

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