Opinion-editorial article published in The Brunswickan (Fredericton), 7 November 2003
Several years ago, I worked on a campaign that resulted in a five per cent reduction in tuition barriers to education at the University of Victoria. This was achieved through an increase in the annual grant from the government of British Columbia to the university. There is no reason why a similar step could not be implemented here at UNB.
Our taxation system exists to ensure a fair distribution of resources. Rather than increase tuition barriers each year (preventing low-income students from accessing an education), UNB should set a precedent in the Maritimes by returning to a progressive, government-funded model of education.
In 1996, Ireland eliminated tuition barriers. The ‘Irish Tiger’ economy – one of the strongest in Europe – draws heavily from a highly trained, well-educated population. Students are not penalized, impoverished and indebted with escalating user fees. Instead, universities receive sufficient resources from their government to make tuition unnecessary. This provides an incentive to receive an education, rather than a disincentive, as currently exists in New Brunswick.
In the 1960s, Newfoundland embarked on a similar experiment of free education. This occurred under the Liberal premier, Joey Smallwood. While this program was never fully implemented, Newfoundland reduced tuition by 25 per cent in 2002. That same year, the government of Manitoba reduced undergraduate fees by 10 per cent.
Such models exist in a number of different countries. France, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark and Sweden all offer free, or extremely low, tuition. Students receive monthly grants from their governments, between $200 and $600 per month, to help cover living costs. Tuition is paid for by the state. Why not in Canada?
For several years, the United Nations ranked Canada as ‘the best country in the world to live.’ We have recently slipped from this position. So-called ‘free trade’ agreements, combined with the neo-Liberal policies of Mulroney, Chretien and Martin, have eroded Canada’s progressive social system. As (then finance minister) Paul Martin slashed transfer payments in 1995, the Young Liberals of Canada successfully split the student movement of the country. The Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) was formed as a counter-weight to the left-leaning Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). University students lacked the unity to prevent a frontal assault on state-funded education. The result is crippling debt that in many cases exceeds $40,000 per student.
Conforming to NAFTA, the WTO, and similar agreements, our political leaders are eager to harmonize public services with the private, for-profit model pursued in the United States. The doubling of tuition barriers across Canada in the 1990s demonstrates this trend.
UNB now finds itself at a crossroads. Our premier, Bernard Lord, occupies a tenuous position at Province House. Leading a minority government, there is an opening for public policies that would usually be unthinkable to right-wing politicians like Lord. (Before the last election, his majority government laid the groundwork for the privatization of NB Power.) Weakened in the legislature, the Lord government can be pressured to increase funding to UNB – several million dollars would be sufficient – to reduce tuition fees.
How can this outcome be achieved? First, the students, staff and administrators at UNB will have to discard the idea that “tuition increases are inevitable”. Such narrow, illogical thinking is uncharacteristic of educated people. The purpose of a university education is to challenge conventional notions, not parrot them.
Second, the university community will have to organize itself into a force that the provincial government cannot ignore. Through discussion, debate, public meetings, petitions, and demonstrations, the UNB community – combined with the general public – will have to translate its will into government policy, and government funding.
The final ingredient in this equation involves a change of mindset. While I am a newcomer to New Brunswick, I have observed a pervasive culture of ‘Paternalism’ in this place, which is much weaker elsewhere in Canada. I see it regularly in dealings with landlords; in the way workers accept low wages with no job security; in the unwillingness of intelligent students to question authority and take action to defend their interests. Right now, I sense a powerlessness among many of my peers on this campus, and throughout the Maritimes. But this situation can change. And it will change.
UNB will move towards a zero-tuition model. I would like to see this process begin in spring 2004, when the next budget is presented to the Board of Governors. I have faith in the capacity of ordinary people to assert, through education and organization, their own inherent power.
In the words of the rock band Trooper, “We’re here for a good time, not a long time.” So let’s have a good time creating some social justice on this campus and beyond.