Tuition Fees: Should they stay or should they go? (OP-ED)

Written for the Et Cetera.

Much has been said regarding the cost of education in recent years. What was once a relatively modest fee – rounding up to $1,500 for the average undergraduate at the beginning of the 1990s – has ballooned out to more than a staggering $5,500 per head, according to the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). Concerns surrounding the increasingly bloated figure are not unfounded, to be sure… but there’s a growing notion that suggests eschewing the costs of tuition altogether, in favour of embracing the economic models of countries like Norway and other European nations in reshaping the education system to suit even our most indigent students. However, as much as its proponents don’t want to hear it, the proposition is simply not fiscally viable given the overwhelming and often ignored chasm of a difference between the economic structures of our country and the aforementioned reformist utopias.

For one thing, Norway has a population reaching just over five million – as of the last national census, Canada stands at 35 million. Failing to acknowledge the world of difference between our respective populations shows a gross misunderstanding of not only education reform, but governance in an industrialized nation as a whole. It’s far easier to play host to and provide for five dinner guests than it is for 35 dinner guests, and anyone who tells you differently is desperately misinformed and probably an abysmal dinner host.

Countries like Norway also have higher GDP rates than Canada, as well as much higher taxes. In tandem with its condensed population, these factors create the primary source of revenue upon which the country’s free tuition is funded. These are situational resources that Canada simply does not have. Following the logic that “it works over there” is a lot like asking “If Tom Brady plays for the Patriots, why can’t I?” We are not Tom Brady, Canada. We are built very differently, with a different body (population) mass, different bone (class) structure, and less stellar pectorals (that’s where this analogy falls flat, unfortunately).

Then there’s the subject of the inherent need for free education in the aforementioned European nations. Let’s look to supposed paradise Sweden for an example: In 2013, the United States Federal Reserve released a report detailing average student debt across countries of varying economic backgrounds, and found that Sweden’s average student leaves post-secondary school with the equivalent of just under $20,000 American dollars in debt – only $5,000 below the average American student’s ever-lengthening I.O.U.

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While tuition fees may have been waived, high taxation and a disproportionate cost of living means that students can’t afford to be bombarded with even more financial burdens, for fear of completely going under. School is free in Sweden because it has to be, not because Swedes are naturally more enlightened.

Perhaps given the continuing rise of tuition costs in Canada, it would be wise to extend the proverbial olive branch an inch or two. A change is absolutely necessary. We’re not on the cusp of economic prosperity here, nor do we have any reason to expect such an era in the foreseeable future. The grievances of the critics are legitimate, and they’re worth a careful hearing. No graduate should have to spend the following ten or so years regretting their decision to pursue a higher education and a better life overall.

It helps no one, however, to suggest that we cut loose the financial support upon which our education system is paid for in pursuit of bettering that same system (in some inconceivable way). It’s a defeated argument, and one that takes up far too much time in this debate.