January 19, 2012

There’s still no excuse for keeping tuition fees high in B.C.

Students across Canada will be mobilizing
for accessible education on Feb. 1st
Polling demonstrates with stunning reliability that most British Columbians want affordable, high-quality public education.

They think tuition fees are too high, and have considerable anxiety about the record student debt that this generation of students is carrying.

Despite the popularity of reducing tuition fees and cutting student debt, the B.C. Liberals have shown no interest in making university and college more affordable. Tax cuts and more trade with Pacific Rim countries seem to be the only policies on the radar, and it’s unclear how either issue helps average families.

But in order to divert attention away from the student debt burden created when tuition fees doubled under Gordon Campbell between 2002 and 2005, the government relies on a variety of excuses and half-baked theories.

This time last year, it was fashionable for politicians to cite the higher earnings of university graduates as an excuse to ignore student debt and the upfront costs (tuition fees) imposed by government. Organizations like the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), a small but powerful interest group comprised exclusively of university presidents, have gone so far as to suggest that a university graduate will earn $1 million more in her working life than a high school graduate.

Enter the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the 2011 edition of its Education at a Glance publication comparing education systems around the globe. When examining all of the costs and benefits of university participation in Canada, the OECD concluded that the average lifetime premium for male university graduates is only $80,000—less than 10 percent of the AUCC’s fantastical figure.

For female university graduates, the average earnings premium is only $46,000. In other words, the average woman graduating with a university degree today should only expect to net $1,150 more each year in her 40-year working career.

No doubt there are other benefits to a university and college degree in addition to higher wages. Education is correlated with things like better health and greater career satisfaction. Society benefits in a variety of ways too, as does the broader economy. But the fact remains: proponents of higher tuition fees have been grossly exaggerating the individual returns for their own policy ends.

So this year, with the diminishing credibility of the argument that more student debt is okay because university graduates are all millionaires-in-waiting, politicians need new reasons to fend off the middle-class demands for affordable public education.

The new excuse is the allegedly poor financial planning skills of today’s young adults. In an effort you might call victim-blaming, provincial and federal politicians have begun to cling to the idea that students (and therefore their families) are to blame for their own lot.

The mainstream press has embraced the idea with gusto. In the month of November 2011, the Province newspaper wrote no fewer than six stories about the record debt facing this generation—without a peep about the government policies that got us here. Almost all of the solutions covered by the Province were of the self-help variety.

Clever budgeting for students is not an entirely new fad on campus. University administrator and self-styled financial planning guru Murray Baker has made a tidy sum selling his “Debt-Free Graduate” series in which he reminds students to turn off the lights to cut energy bills. Baker estimates his methods to be so effective that he counsels his readers to max out their student loans so they can invest what they don’t spend in the stock market (which, by the way, is fraud).
There may be some truth to the idea that it wouldn’t hurt for students to brush up on their budgeting skills. Unfortunately, this potentially positive approach has—like the millionaire myth discussed above—been used by political opportunists to distract attention from the heart of the matter: sky-high tuition fees.

If the public discourse about fault can be shifted to the victim, so too does the public discourse about the solutions, which is convenient for a government hell bent on tax cuts over investment in public education.
Instead of tuition fee reductions, we get a gimmicky PR campaign to convince us that education is more affordable when you buy less coffee or carpool twice a week.

Of course, even the most aggressive personal budgeting couldn’t change the fact that tuition fees in B.C. have more than doubled over the last decade and that student debt has skyrocketed into uncharted territory. Clever money management is unlikely to change the interest rate charged on B.C. student loans which, at prime plus 2.5 percent, is the highest in Canada.

Better financial literacy won’t hurt, but it is a Band-Aid solution to a problem caused by government divestment in vital public services. If the government is serious about a B.C. that is fair and an economy that works for everyone, it should attack the causes of student debt by reducing tuition fees and re-establishing the student grants program that was cut in 2005.

Zach Crispin is the chair of the Canadian Federation of Students-British Columbia

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