Free education: is it possible?
While students in Quebec are mobilizing to counter the drastic increase in tuition fees announced by the Charest government, it is important to continue the discussion on free education. This project, often attacked as utopian, is actually quite realistic and even relatively easy to apply, assuming of course a major change in our societal choices.
Window-shopping one’s education
Education is the basis of a society: it allows the transmission of knowledge and culture, and teaches critical thinking.
Increasingly, this fundamental right has become a commodity that students can buy and income has become a major factor deciding the scope of studies or their continuation. Those who can afford it are spoiled for choice while others are being forced to forgo some options to enter the labour market as soon as possible. A long university education is supposed to result in a prestigious degree, yet often this degree does not guarantee a job, especially not a job that would pay off the debts that have become necessary.
Free education: a realistic project
Free education means that the full cost is contributed by the state. This policy therefore requires a major reinvestment in education from the state in question, who have often used tuition fee increases in order to reduce their participation This happened in Quebec between 1988 and 2002: while the share of funding from students increased from 5.4% to 9.5%, that of the state decreased from 87% to 71%. Currently, free education at all levels in Quebec would cost about $700 million – and other researchers estimate it would cost between 176 M$ and 405 M$ – money that the state can get by making some simple choices: ceasing to give 950 M$ tax cuts to the rich as happened in 2007 or using the budget allocated to universities to ensure the quality of education instead of funding research partnerships with private firms. Not only is this project economically feasible, but it is also socially equitable as it provides access to quality education to everyone regardless of living and income.
A social choice
It would indeed be utopian to think that the introduction of this policy will happen overnight. The impressive closed-mindedness of the current government is undeniable, but free education is a choice we can make together that will define our society. Do we really want the Québec of tomorrow to be a society ruled by the logic of every man for himself, where employees run in every direction, like centipedes desiring only to dissociate themselves from society in order to make a fortune in a world where everything has cash value?
The ongoing struggle against rising costs is only a first step towards free education, which is itself a step towards a more egalitarian society, solidarity and justice. Imagining a better society is the first step in fighting for it.