Cormac McGee, vice-president of education at the Ryerson Students’ Union expressed his support this week for the Canadian Federation of Students’ (CFS) plan for free post-secondary education.
“If there’s a sustainable way to do this… then yeah, I support it,” said Mcgee.
Last week the CFS rallied on Parliament Hill to pitch its $3.3-billion “Post-Secondary Education Act,” a plan to eliminate tuition fees for all post-secondary institutions nationwide by redirecting federal and provincial spending.
“The federal government has been investing in ineffective programs. Various different tax credits, savings schemes, tuition tax credits, textbook tax credits, the registered education savings plan (RESP) … only benefit those from middle– to high–income backgrounds,” said Bilan Arte, chairperson for the CFS.
Feb. 1 marked the beginning of the CFS National Lobby Week. Over five days, the CFS laid out their three main objectives to MPs and senators in Ottawa. The first is to alleviate education-related debt. The second is to “re-establish Canada’s identity as a world-leader in research,” which involves offering graduate students more grants and increasing funding for groups like the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. The third focuses on unemployment and underemployment among recent graduates. This comprises funding for employee training programs as well as spending to provide payment to students doing internships for academic credit.
According to Arte, current models for government spending focus on benefiting students who already have the means to attend university in the first place. The CFS’s goal is to remove any initial barriers that block students from accessing colleges or universities across Canada, regardless of their economic background.
“Programs that are costing us close to $1.05 billion in spending for the RESP program, $450 million in spending for the various other tax credits… could be better spent in upfront funding towards a fully public system of post-secondary education,” said Arte.
Jacqueline Lambert, the manager of data and policy research for Higher Education Strategy Associates (HESA), disagrees with the idea that free tuition is beneficial to students in general.
“One of the blind spots of the free tuition argument… is that it potentially reduces access (to post-secondary institutions),” she said.
HESA is an organization that conducts research and consultancy for institutions and government agencies on issues regarding post-secondary education.
According to her, tuition fees act as an incentive for institutions to accept more students and keep increasing access. What’s more is that rising tuition has likely enabled institutions to provide a more diverse set of programs to a more diverse group of students, she said.
“You can’t always ensure that government funding is going to necessarily meet your needs in terms of being able to admit as many students as you would like… or to the programs that they would like to attend.”
Lambert said providing universal education would make free tuition available to families and students who wouldn’t need the assistance, along with those that actually do. Considering the spending proposed by the CFS excludes funding for textbooks, rent and other peripheral costs associated with post-secondary education, lower-income families would be left at a disadvantage next to those who would otherwise have no problem affording all of the above, she said.
“There’s enough money in the system to cover a lot of students’ costs but the truth of the matter is the fair way of doing this is by not covering everyone’s costs equally,” Lambert said.
The CFS is credited with being the oldest and largest student organization in Canada and its website boasts that it represents “over one-half million students from more than 80 university and college students’ unions.” For an annual fee that topped $427,000 for the last school year, the CFS represented the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU), and to a wider degree Ryerson students. The rationale is that as a member, the CFS lobbies on behalf of Ryerson students and uses its operational budget to propose initiatives that are in students’ interests.
This RSU administration however has deviated from some of the calls to action made by the CFS. McGee received flak for his education campaign that attempted to secure provincial funding in order to provide payment to students doing for-credit internships. Members of Reignite Ryerson, a new opposition group, expressed dissatisfaction towards McGee for not carrying on a campaign similar to Freeze the Fees – one that had mirrored the more hard line demands around tuition, typical of the CFS.
“Historically the CFS has run these types of campaigns for over 30 years and nothing has happened,” said McGee.
Arte is hoping that the demands being peddled this time by the CFS will fall better on the ears of the newly elected Liberal party. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rode into office on a campaign that expressed sympathy for students “saddled with large debts.” Included in his platform were plans for increasing the Canada Student Grant available to students from low-income families, as well as requiring students to repay loans only once they’re earning $25,000 annually.
“We need to see some federal leadership… that provides opportunities for young people to be able to access a university or college education and gain the training and skills that they need to be successful in this job market,” said Arte.