The Ontario government’s announcement last winter that students below a certain family income threshold would be admitted to college or university for free was greeted with stunned glee by progressive people on the internet.
It turns out the reality was more complicated than the spin suggested. The full story is that tuition is scheduled to rise substantially, and most students will borrow astronomical sums to attend, while some students will be able to apply to have their tuition offset up to 100% by grants.
But the short-lived free tuition euphoria raised a good question: why not make higher education, like primary and secondary school, free for everyone? Why increase fees, then assess students’ financial needs to determine their eligibility for grants or loans, then give them money to pay their fees, then collect it from those who qualify for loans and not grants, when you can just fund all of it?
I think I can guess what you’re saying now. Why should students whose parents make a lot of money go to university for free? Why make a policy that gives something for free to people who can easily afford to buy it? Why should a wealthy banker, let’s say, not have to pay for their kid to go to university?
This is a question of universality, and it’s a familiar one to people who remember the struggles over universality in the 1980s and 90s.
In those days, it was about Family Allowances, popularly called the ‘baby bonus,’ a program that gave mothers money every month to help defray the costs of raising children, so the debate was about the wealthy banker’s wife who, it was suggested by Brian Mulroney, didn’t need the cheques. Social programs were for the less advantaged, it was said, and were wasted on the affluent.
But defenders of universality argued that the wealthy banker’s wife should get Family Allowances. For one thing, it wasn’t necessarily true that the spouse of a wealthy person was wealthy, and the state should never assume wealthy spouses and parents are generous and caring with their families. This was the socio-economic side of the argument: Family Allowances made sure that the person raising the children had money directly, and didn’t depend entirely on the budgetary whims of rich fathers.
The political-economic side of the argument was articulated by Linda McQuaig in her book The Wealthy Banker’s Wife: programs that are specifically for the poor are always parsimonious, she argued, and are easily whittled away because the poor are politically marginalized. Universal programs that benefit everyone give those who desperately need a program the company and solidarity of more comfortable people who appreciate it, and that solidarity is a form of insurance against cutbacks.
Opponents of universality will say that what they really want is to protect the truly poor from a greedy, entitled middle class that wants free stuff it doesn’t need, in order to preserve social programs for those who really need them. But this isolates poor people from the wider basis of social support that comes with universal programs.
The same goes for post-secondary education: it seems logical to exclude people who can afford to pay full tuition from a public subsidy, but in practice means-testing access to free tuition means some students won’t be able to pay and low-income students won’t benefit from the support of their better-off peers when austerity looms. If we want post-secondary education to be truly accessible, it has to be subsidized for the wealthy banker’s kid too.
Although post-secondary tuition is publicly subsidized in Canada, supplemented by a byzantine network of government-backed loans systems, we tend not to think of it as a social program. The common sense of our time insists that social programs are for the poor, those who, temporarily or perhaps permanently, through “no fault of their own,” need help.
This is the rhetoric of the social safety net, of the welfare state as a floor of human dignity that protects people who have no other means of support from starving or freezing to death, for long enough to allow them to re-enter the job market and re-establish income independence.
Sure, some programs are like that, but much of the welfare state is better understood, as Matt Gruenig has argued, as a foundation for a better life than as a net in catastrophic situations. “The welfare foundation provides a universal set of services on top of which people can build their lives,” Gruenig says. “It is a permanent support structure, not a temporary failsafe.”
It’s an important distinction. Public funding for post-secondary education, for example, was not introduced in the period after 1945 because a great number of people suddenly couldn’t afford to go to college or university. It was introduced because more people wanted to go to university, and the state wanted them to go.
The collective societal benefit from having a better educated population, able to enter the workforce with minimal extra training, able to advance scientific, technological, social, or political progress, and able to contribute intelligently to governing a democratic society, was clear in those times, when the memories of the economic catastrophe of the Great Depression and the political catastrophe of fascism were fresh.
For a variety of reasons, the great age of universality faded in the last decades of the 20th century, and even progressive people, their ambitions stunted by austerity, increasingly understood the welfare state as only a necessity in exceptional circumstances, not as the basic architecture of a democratic society.
This is why a government can get away with calling an intrusive, means-tested program ‘free tuition,’ because we accept without much thought that tuition need only be subsidized for those who can’t afford it. In fact, though, free means free: no price tag, now or later, for anyone—even those who can demonstrably afford to pay.
Policy makers who are resistant to universality insist that publicly funding tuition would be fiscally regressive—transferring money from those with less money to those who have more—and would have little to no effect on university enrolment: children of well-paid university-educated professionals would still go to university, but they would do so for free, rather than paying for the clear job market advantage their university education gives them.
This argument falls apart completely when college students, who do not come disproportionately from upper-income families, are included in free tuition proposals. And it ignores the shared social benefit that comes from more people having access to the education they want, rather than struggling in the job market with what they know are suboptimal qualifications.
If we accept the individualist framing, and ignore programs that have high costs yet draw low-income applicants, does this argument hold? Should people who benefit from university education, in the form of higher earnings after graduation, pay for it through debt? That, opponents of universality contend, is the only way to fund higher education fairly.
This claim betrays an extremely jaundiced view of the tax system, which ostensibly extracts revenue from income-earners based on their ability to pay. If well-paid university-educated professionals are sending their children to school, have they not already paid a much larger share of their income in taxes than lower-income parents? If they haven’t, that’s a problem with the tax system, not with free tuition.
To be fiscally progressive—to transfer funds from higher earners to lower earners—universal programs like free tuition need to be funded by progressive tax systems. It is perhaps no accident that taxes were at their most progressive, with heavy taxes on high incomes, in the post-war period when universality dominated social policy thinking.
The tax system works very well as a way to force people, like university-educated professionals who earn high incomes, to pay for the privilege. It is the most precise instrument we have for extracting money from people who have more of it than they need—much more precise than student debt, which by design weighs on those who can’t afford to pay, not on those who can.
The argument that free tuition is regressive is disingenuous unless it’s coupled with a demand for progressive taxation. Indeed, if a public subsidy of tuition had the effect of applying pressure to make the tax system more progressive, that would be an excellent thing.
What would happen if we made university and college free? How would students’ lives change, and how would post-secondary education change?
No one knows, just as no one knew in the 1950s that if you made university more accessible to women and to working-class kids, they would change the curriculum of the humanities and social sciences almost completely. The activist orientation of so much scholarship since the 1960s, and the serious attention that is given popular entertainment, are inconceivable without that change in demographics.
Policy makers didn’t intend for this to happen. They believed they were allowing more students access to the skills and refinement that young men from wealthy backgrounds had benefited from in the past. They underestimated the fluidity of higher education, its capacity to stretch and grow to accommodate the aspirations of new thinkers with new values.
Even if we concede that the demographics of post-secondary education would not change if tuition fees were scrapped, it is still conceivable, and even likely, that the type of student who enrolled in university would change, simply by virtue of not seeing it as a multi-thousand-dollar gamble.
Students enrolling in college and university now are subjected to a never-ending commentary about the likely job market outcomes of different fields of study. Only a small minority, usually from very wealthy or very poor backgrounds, risk studying things they are simply interested in.
As a collective body, students are formed, as intellectuals and as social agents, by debt. It hangs over them, like a spectral guidance counsellor, groaning advice as they chart their education, choose their major, and pick their courses. Their calculations may not be corrected, but they’re always guided by the fear of indebtedness unto bankruptcy.
Whether this is the actual intent of funding higher education in this way, or whether it’s an unforeseen consequence of a budget-driven model, the effect has been a mass experiment in what scholars call ‘governing by debt.’ Students are no longer ordered to study certain things; they are ordered to follow their hearts, to study what they wish to study, with the million-dollar caveat that they will pay for their decisions dearly.
What would post-secondary education look like without this succubus second-guessing students’ curiosity and ambition? We don’t know, but there’s one way to find out: make tuition publicly funded for everyone.
Illustrations by B Mroz.