This letter is written as a response to “What free tuition means to me” by former St. Thomas University Students’ Union president Philippe Ferland. In case you didn’t get the chance to read it, his argument boils down to the idea that eliminating tuition fees would be bad, because only rich people (such as himself) would benefit. I am disappointed by the fact that someone who once claimed to have the best interests of students at heart is defending a policy that only takes care of his own.
This is because tuition fees aren’t something that come out of thin air. Like all user fees, whether its to get on public transit or to go to a university, they go towards partially servicing the cost of running the public service. The other part that pays for it is public funding from the government, which comes out of taxes. So when you see a large decline in public funding, that means tuition rises to fill that gap. This is exactly what has been happening for the last 40 years. Public funding has declined because both Liberal and Conservative governments have been cutting taxes on the rich. Canada’s top marginal income tax rate used to be 85 per cent in the early 1970s and federal corporate taxes were double what they are today back in 1997. The Chrétien-Martin Liberal governments cut it by nine percentage points and Stephen Harper’s government cut it by a further six.
So what the rich used to pay in taxes are now being paid as a user fee (also a tax) by the people with the least ability to pay: students. In fact, they have to take out loans to pay these taxes. There’s also a policy called the “tuition tax credit” which allows Canada’s top 20 per cent richest families to benefit the most by being able to write the cost of tuition off their income taxes. While poor students have to take on debt and pay interest on it, the parents of rich students get a $1.6-billion tax break.
We could pay for the elimination of tuition fees across the entire country if we just reversed Stephen Harper’s corporate tax cuts or got rid of the 50 per cent tax exemption on capital gains (which primarily benefits the top one per cent), bring in a tax on inheritances of multi-million dollar estates or even just directly raise income taxes on the ultra-rich. Having tuition fees over public funding is a political choice, and it is one which punishes the poor who seek a better life and rewards the rich for being born into privilege.
So when we talk about eliminating tuition fees, we’re not pretending that they are a free gift we are giving to everyone. We are going to make the rich pay for it through higher taxes. Having universal public services paid for by progressive taxation are how every government redistributes wealth. In fact, its been called Canada’s quiet bargain. So while Philippe likes to defend a system that benefits himself with dishonest arguments like if you eliminate tuition fees rich kids will just use the money to go on vacation, let’s stick with the real facts. When a post-secondary education is required for 70 per cent of all new jobs, we should not be locking low-income and working-class students out of one of the only paths to the middle class. Just because Philippe can’t see how the existing system enormously benefits him, doesn’t mean we should be blind to it as well.