How’s your German?

If Germany can do it, why can’t we?. That is the question every student in debt nowadays is asking. A few years ago, Germany’s supreme court declared that tuition fees were essential, after years of having no tuition for their post-secondary educational system. This paved way for seven states to experiment with their tuition fee structure, many charging tuition at a modest €500 to €1000 which amounts to around CAD$690 to $1385, though waiver systems in some states meant that as many as a third of those students end up paying nothing.

Gradually, the government in Germany reversed its decision to charge tuition fees and this fall abolished tuition fees for post-secondary education, thus raising the question: “could Canada do the same”? And answering this question has led to a string of controversial debates on abolishing tuition fees in Canada.

There are various arguments supporting tuition fees for post-secondary education. Some suggest that there is not enough social cohesion in place in Canada to create a successful “tuition-free” system. Many believe that a free education system is a gift to the economically privileged and does very little to contribute to the lower classes. This view is shared by economist Stephen Gordon of The Globe and Mail, who suggests that tuition fees should be hiked, government money should be protected and a system of grants that offers financial aid to students who are less well off and are qualified to attend post-secondary education should be established. This system would contribute to a redistribution of wealth and see the economically privileged subsidize the indigent.

To dismiss this theory would be completely foolish. A further exchange on this point would, however, open the likelihood of some lacking presuppositions that led to this conclusion. Mr. Gordon argues that “people from the top quarter of the income distribution are roughly twice as likely to go to university as those from the bottom quarter”, trying to illustrate that the correlation between family income and university participation is fixed. There is of course a considerable measure of explanations behind this other than the expense. A classist analysis arguably points out that there are a number of inherently practical mechanisms that prevent less fortunate students from pursuing post-secondary education. Practices such as ‘streaming’ – the practice of grouping students based on abilities only – officially ended in 1999, but is very much alive in our school systems today. This fortifies pragmatic and attitudinal hindrances to higher learning for average workers kids.

In contrast to Germany’s views on education, “Tuition fees are socially unjust” argues Dorothee Stapelfeldt, President of the Hamburg Parliament, as quoted in The Times.

“They particularly discourage young people who do not have a traditional academic family background from taking up studies. It is a core task of politics to ensure that young women and men can study with a high-quality standard, free of charge in Germany”.

This is a view shared by many, including the Canadian Federation of Students currently protesting a rising $15 Billion student debt as of October 2014. Countries like France, Finland and Norway all have a no tuition education system, in contrast to the United Kingdom which has been an example of “what could be” should Canada continue to raise its post-secondary tuition. Raising tuition fees has ended up costing more than it brings in, with graduating students leaving university with mountains of debt, gradual drops in overall university enrollment and higher student loan defaults.

Financial support for students, these days are primarily in the form of student loans. It is not terribly surprising then that a student from a background of less privilege is reluctant to acquire large amounts of debt and essentially mortgage his or her future. Even those, who manage to cover their costs, end up choosing specializations that lead directly to jobs (engineering, pharmacy, accounting etc.) instead of studies in liberal arts, for example. This creates a fine line between students who graduate as either ‘well educated’ individuals or ‘well trained’ individuals leaving our society overburdened in particular professions.

This eventually narrows the debate to a point between the redistribution of wealth and the universal access to education as a long term solution. A system of providing grants to the less fortunate paid by the well-off would ideally have a similar effect on universal access to education would, but is that a better solution in the long haul?

Universal access to education based on merit would change the overall demographics of post-secondary education over time. We have already seen the effects of gradually increasing tuition fees. The argument that “we have never done this before, it might not work” is a rather weak claim to a proposal that might alter the landscape of post-secondary education radically.

Education is a public good and should be available to everybody, regardless of class, gender, race or status. An equal opportunity based approach would serve the purpose of narrowing the gap between the rich and poor, while providing a universal education system that is preferred over the long run.

However, it is also critical to note that education is not free; rather the issue is who pays for it. For our previous generation, when the government heavily subsidized post-secondary education, a greater share of the cost was borne by future taxpayers since it was all debt-funded. Today’s student loans are not that different in terms of the total debt burden except for the fact that now the debt is held by individuals (and only those who attend university, and not paid for by high school dropouts) as opposed to it being a part of the government debt or charging higher taxes. In fact, the main imbalance today is that students have to pay for their personal education debt – and through their taxes – the historical public government debt from the previous generation’s education as well.

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