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Views of my Own: On the Proposed Post-Secondary Grant Scheme

Thursday, March 10, 2016

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Written by Noel Mano

The recent announcement of a new system of tuition grants that would make post-secondary education effectively free (or close to free) for students from families with an annual income below $50,000 was greeted with surprise and delight. It has, after all, been a long-standing goal of the student movement to secure more affordable and accessible higher education. As with most things, however, the matter is not quite so simple.

The Central Student Association pointed out some of the potential issues in an interview. Most significantly, since the system works on a grant basis, as opposed to simply abolishing fees, it begins with a payout to prospective students. These payouts are calculated with undergraduate arts and science degrees as a benchmark. The problem with this, of course, is that professional degrees, like engineering, are going to necessitate some out of pocket costs. Additionally, while the Ontario government says that students could well receive more in grants than their tuition costs, many won’t, and will thus have to field tuition related costs, like textbooks, on their own. Which is to say nothing of other potential issues and complications that may emerge in any government social program.

There is, however, the matter of access to post-secondary education, which has often been conflated with affordability. To be sure, the two often go hand in hand. However, Ross Finnie, who studies cost and access issues around higher education at the University of Ottawa, thinks that they are not as intertwined as commonly thought. His analysis, cited in The Globe and Mail, suggests that a bigger determinant of people attending university is whether or not their parents attended university. If so, the new policy may not end up having much of an impact in terms of the raw numbers of people attending university, nor will it do much to address the under-representation of poor and working class students in university, observed during our conversation by Sonia Chwalek, outgoing Communications & Corporate Affairs Commissioner.

That said, it will help reduce the greater debt taken on by poor students to attend university (especially if, as Dr. Finnie suggests, income per se is not responsible for university attendance). Moreover, if one considers the issue of parental education levels, it is quite reasonable to suggest that the buck has to stop somewhere. In other words, to produce a generation of parents who do attend university and thus encourage their children to attend university, it would be good policy to eliminate as many barriers as possible so that these intergenerational effects don’t accumulate. All things considered, this is pretty good- or at least reasonable- policy.

However, I have to wonder at some of the language which has greeted the proposal. The suggestion that the scheme be broadened to all students is something I must wonder about, even if it’s been a stated goal of activists for years now. Surely the point of publicly funded higher education is to make university or college accessible to all. Why then should those with the means of accessing it themselves, like the wealthy, be entitled to state support for it? In my view, the logic behind free or near-free postsecondary education should be one of equalizing opportunity for all, which ideally should account for the fact that some already have access to a particular opportunity. If nothing else, policymakers and activists should at least be willing to acknowledge the fiscal realities of the province, and recognize that a certain measure of cost-control is necessary to keep the scheme solvent for many years to come. One may be tempted to speak of post-secondary education as a right, but I’ve always found such terminology perplexing. After all, I can’t think of any other right that requires you to qualify for it by proving your competence at a given set of benchmarks. Perhaps this is old-fashioned, but my understanding of the concept of rights is that they derive their legal and cultural power because we believe them to exist innately, that a person possesses them simply by existing.

In parting, I think the Liberal government has come up with a pretty good plan, even if it’s implementation needs to be closely watched over the next several years. It is my hope that the government follows through in good faith, and that activists hold Ontario to this promise.

 

*The interview was conducted for the News Hour at CFRU 93.3 FM, and the archived show may be found here (interview begins ~35 minutes in)

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