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By Paul Moist

For years now we have heard arguments on both sides of the tuition argument as to why tuition should be lowered or remain prohibitively high. The arguments go around in a circle of education being a right and therefore should be accessible and on the other hand education being an investment in one’s future and so high tuition fees now would be offset later in terms of real income as a professional.

Ultimately these are questions of class and a cheap labour force.

For many middle and lower income families wanting to send their children to university or college, tuition fees have been considered the traditional barrier to access. Young people today are graduating with higher debt loads than ever before. Opposite the boomer experience, who had the chance to graduate from university or college, find decent paying jobs - then face a mortgage when choosing to buy a house; today’s youth graduate into a precarious employment situation with a debt load so high that the mortgage they face is the one they carry from pursuing their studies.

My own union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) represents over half a million working Canadians. This is a good sample of middle and lower income families who hope to send their children off to university or college. We are the librarians, custodians, municipal workers, flight attendants, hydro workers, teaching assistants, speech therapists, cooks and bus drivers. It seems reasonable that our members should have expectations that their children will have access to a post secondary education should they wish to pursue their education past high school. However this expectation is often met with the harsh reality that although many of our members’ wages and benefits have not increased significantly over the past decade the costs of accessing post secondary education has soared.

While our national unemployment rate fell to 32-year low of 6.1 per cent last May, a closer look indicates stubbornly high rates of young workers unemployment about 12 per cent. Incomes are on the rise, but a closer look reveals a disturbing pattern. For unionized workers in workplaces with over 500 employees, negotiated pay increases have averaged 2.5 per cent so far this year. Meanwhile, CEOs gave themselves a 39 per cent increase last year.

There is indeed more wealth being generated in Canada. However, it is distributed more unfairly than at anytime in our history. Real wage growth for workers measured over the decades also reveals a disturbing trend. From 1940 to 1970, real incomes grew by double digits in each decade. This slowed in the 1970s and 1980s, but families still saw their real incomes increase by almost 10 per cent during each decade. During the 1990s, real income growth plummeted and was stagnant for most of the decade.

While the economy has grown at a solid rate in recent years and labour productivity has rebounded, workers are getting a smaller and smaller share of the economic pie, while corporate profits and CEO salaries are taking a bigger and bigger share.

In 2002 Stats Can reported that for those who faced barriers in post-secondary education, 70 per cent cited finances as the problem. Between 1990 and 2006, while federal transfers to education dipped by approximately $4 billion, tuition fees increased nearly 200 per cent. Meanwhile, individual student debt has climbed, approaching $30,000 in some provinces. Universities are receiving smaller proportions of their operating budgets from governments. Federal cash transfers for post-secondary education relative to gross domestic product are less than half what they were in 1992-93. However, while students and universities struggle with under- funding, there are budget surpluses at both the provincial and federal levels.

One antiquated solution being bandied about is to introduce an income contingent repayment plan. A student loan scheme based on the belief that individuals are the sole beneficiaries of education and therefore should bear the full cost. Under income contingent repayment plans, borrowers would repay their loans as a percentage of their income upon completion of study. Graduates with lower levels of income would repay their loans over a longer period of time, resulting in higher costs because loan interest is paid over a longer period of time.

Education is a benefit to all Canadians. Most industrialized countries recognize that education contributes to economic growth. Increasing access to education provides benefits to society as well as the individual. University tuition fees are negligible or non-existent in many European countries like Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, France, and Norway. Record growth in tuition fees has propelled Canada into the position of one of the highest tuition fee chargers in the industrialized world.

Our children deserve to have access to post secondary education and our society needs us to make this investment now.