On February 2, 2000 the Canadian Federation of Students kicked off its Access 2000 campaign with protests, marches, events, and strikes. The Access 2000 platform consists of 4 demands:
- The federal government must restore $3.7 billion in transfer payments to provinces in the 2000-2001 budget.
- The federal government must work with provinces to reduce tuition fees and bring about the eventual elimination of user fees for post-secondary education.
- The federal government must replace the Canada Student Loans Program with a comprehensive national system of grants.
- Negotiate an agreement on post-secondary education with provinces that sets standards for quality, accessibility, and portability, similar to the Canada Health Act.
It is admirable that students are concerned about the future of post-secondary education in Canada, however it is unfortunate that the demands imposed on Canadians by CFS are nothing more than shortsighted repairs. With the enormous amount of funds confiscated by CFS each year and the wealth of student intellect in our post-secondary institutions it is pitiful to see such inherently weak suggestions.
The first demand, restoration of provincial transfers, is nothing more than a glorified cash grab. Provincial transfer funds are simply dollars stolen from the economies of the provinces by the federal government, shuffled around, and redistributed back. A much better solution would be to get the federal government out of the education business and let the provinces handle funding. This would eliminate much of the federal bureaucracy surrounding the system, as well as eliminate the artificial subsidization of the provinces. Provinces would compete with one another for post-secondary quality and those provinces that lag behind would need to develop efficient and prudent economic strategies in order to keep up with those in the lead. Instead, by demanding that the federal government get more involved, CFS is giving more power to the negative institution that has reduced post-secondary education to the state it is in today.
The second demand, free education, is just a utopian pipe dream. Nothing in life is free. In order for something to be free, it would have to have absolutely no costs associated with it. Post-secondary education will always have associated and required costs. There are costs to build, maintain, and renovate buildings, costs to employ staff, instructors, and professors, costs to buy, lease, maintain, and update equipment, and so on. These are required costs that no government can eliminate. Therefore, this demand is really not a demand for “free” post-secondary education, but rather a demand that someone else, other than students, pay the costs associated with it. It is completely illogical to demand that those not using a service or realizing any benefits pay the costs associated with its provision. The common retort to this is the claim that all of society benefits when individuals attain higher education. This retort collapses however when the third demand, grants instead of loans, is examined.
Most Canadians are generous enough to provide up front funding to students in the form of loans knowing that eventually when the student graduates and gains employment this gift will be repaid to the economy. Removing the requirement to repay money generously loaned out by taxpayers would introduce extreme negative incentives to the system. Not only will this money not be repaid, but taxpayers will also have no assurance that students will spend the money efficiently or wisely. With no requirement to repay, there will be no incentive to enter programs that have a high rate of employment upon graduation. In fact, what incentive is there to graduate at all? With an endless stream of grant money and no fees to pay, it is hard to see why anyone would leave university for the workforce. What benefit does society receive when it is forced to hand over billions of dollars to career students who produce little, if any, economic output?
Another problem arises when these first three demands are examined as a whole. North America sits on the verge of an enormous demographic shift. The mass retiring of baby boomers combined with a very small remaining workforce will create a huge strain on our economy and social safety net. Creating an environment where it is incredibly financially appealing to be a career student will suck young minds from our economy, effectively reducing the tax base and eliminating our ability to respond to the higher demands of this demographic shift. Simultaneously, this situation will increase the proportion of citizens in the post-secondary system. With a reduced number of employed over which to distribute these increased demands, each worker will be required to shoulder more. This demographic strain combined with a reduced ability to respond economically will eventually contribute to the collapse of our social services.
The final demand from CFS, a declaration of standards and student rights, shows its reluctance to learn from history. CFS wants such a declaration to be modeled after the Canada Health Act. One need only look at Canada’s health care today to see what the Canada Health Act has accomplished. It is beyond the scope of this letter to examine the plethora of deficiencies in the Canadian health care system. However, I would suggest that students do not want lineups, waiting lists, decrepit facilities, ancient technology, insufficient resources, extreme staffing shortages, and outrageously high public costs in the post-secondary system. These stand as very compelling reasons not to follow in the authoritarian and totalitarian footsteps of the Canada Health Act.
The shortsightedness and ignorance of these demands is one of the reasons why, despite their claim to represent students, CFS does not represent this one. Instead of demanding cash handouts from taxpayers and designing utopian manifestos on post-secondary education, students should focus on generating concrete, long-term solutions based on individual responsibility. Programs such as the Income Contingent Repayment Loan Plan deserve serious consideration. Such a solution would do far more to improve our post-secondary education system and prepare it for the future than yelling, screaming and waving bright signs outside parliament.