Free University Tuition – A radical position?

A friend just pointed a UN treaty (the International Covenant on Economic, social and cultural rights), to which Canada adhered in 1976, which states that signing parties should strive to tend towards free tuition for post-secondary education. It is in fact one of the “nine core international human rights treaty” (dixit UN website). The relevant article (see provision c) and a link to the full treaty are copied below.

So Canada had 30 years to put this in practice. Well in spite of a good share of economic growth over the period, we are not exactly there yet, are we? In fact, people who call for such a measure are, more often than not, dismissed as radicals, while tuition fees are generally on the increase accross the country.

The latest attempt in that realm will happen in the province of Québec this fall. The provincial government has already announced an increase, a position that is generally shared by all three parties (though each has its own preferred formula). However, it looks like several segments of the student movement are ready for a strike similar to the one that happened a couple of years ago. If they do take the streets, it’ll be interesting to see if they can garner a more widespread support this time, though the extent of the movement granted them a stalemate and the resignation of the education minister last time.

During the last strike, which was about preventing the change of student grants into loans, though polls suggested that the population was widely behind the student, they ended up alone in the street, various other social actors waiting “their turn” before asking the government for something. In fact, it could be argued that this is why the Charest government ended up doing pretty much what it wanted, since there was both a constant social pressure on various issues, but never a general front. Anyway, we’ll see what happens this time.

To be continued…

Article 13

1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to education. They agree that education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, and shall strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. They further agree that education shall enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society, promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups, and further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

2. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize that, with a view to achieving the full realization of this right:

(a) Primary education shall be compulsory and available free to all;

(b) Secondary education in its different forms, including technical and vocational secondary education, shall be made generally available and accessible to all by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education;

(c) Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education;

(d) Fundamental education shall be encouraged or intensified as far as possible for those persons who have not received or completed the whole period of their primary education;

(e) The development of a system of schools at all levels shall be actively pursued, an adequate fellowship system shall be established, and the material conditions of teaching staff shall be continuously improved.

3. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to choose for their children schools, other than those established by the public authorities, which conform to such minimum educational standards as may be laid down or approved by the State and to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

4. No part of this article shall be construed so as to interfere with the liberty of individuals and bodies to establish and direct educational institutions, subject always to the observance of the principles set forth in paragraph I of this article and to the requirement that the education given in such institutions shall conform to such minimum standards as may be laid down by the State.

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights


  • Politicians should be comforted by the fact that the economist who advocated free education won a Nobel prize.

    Schultz also promulgated the idea of educational capital, an offshoot of the concept of human capital, relating specifically to the investments made in education.

    Schultz researched into why post-World War II Germany and Japan recovered, at almost miraculous speeds from the wide-spread devastation. Contrast this with the United Kingdom which was still rationing food long after the war. His conclusion was that the speed of recovery was due to a healthy and highly educated population; education makes people productive and good healthcare keeps the education investment around and able to produce. One of his main contributions was later called Human Capital Theory, and inspired a lot of work in international development in the 1980s, motivating investments in vocational and technical education by Bretton Woods System International Financial Institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank.

  • The debate that went on on Stephen Gordon site is interesting, but brings forth one question I have been repeatedly asking myself in recent years: Why do we associate kids with their parents?

    That is to say, why should we give the responsibilty to the parents of paying for their kids and let others free ride?

    Ok, ok, this is a fairly radical position that could take us very far afield, and I don’t have a good alternative for the general costs of raising a kid. But let’s just stick with education.

    If we consider education to be a right, and conceptually divorce individual students from their parents, then we could simply see the problem thus:

    The members of a society should contribute to the education of their fellow members on a means to pay basis, that is, through a progressive income tax, whether or not they are themselves parents, and in such a way that every potential student has access to it.

    That way, rich parents (and non-parents) contribute; poor household may, but less; and the overall system is progressive.

    Now, whether tuition fees is the best way to increase accessibility is an interesting debate. Personally, I would gladly see more money go into need-based portions, such as grants (though again, why we assume that parents should have the sole/main burden of raising their kids is somewhat beyond me). But the nature of bureaucracy is such that people are bound to fall through the cracks of such programs. It happened to several of my buddies from highschool, and my network of friends is not particularly extensive.

    Other solutions are more comprehensive: The problems of kids from poorer background often start very early, and more effort should be devoted to their primary education, such as through food programs at schools (discontinued in Quebec for an unknown reason (the program was relatively cheap and had high returns) – some charities are currently doing their best to fill-in).

    Anyway, that, I think, should be the discussion to have. Once we move away from the association of parents and kids, we can start focusing on ways to increase accessibility and participation by all.

  • Do you really think that children from upper-income households should have the same access to public money as those from lower-income families?

  • To continue with the above point. If university participation rates of upper-income children weren’t twice as high as those from lower-income families, I could see a justification for forgetting about students’ parentage.

    But they are, so I don’t. The link between high participation rates and high parental income is not a coincidence. Those kids didn’t hit a triple; they were born on third base.

  • I agree with your general point, at least as laid out in the second comment. There are a host of factors determining whether one will end up going to university or not, and it turns out that kids from poorer backgrounds stand at a disadvantage.

    This state of affairs is not purely linked with money, but has a lot to do with other factors such as the identity of one’s role models, the encouragement parents give to their kids, the general life in poor neighbourhoods, etc. Money is also important, however, playing a role via kids’ nutrition, to mention but one factor.

    So if the question is whether free tuition will solve those problems, the answer is no. A much more comprehensive support system is needed, as well as probably a culture change in some respects.

    But this does not detract from the point that we should strive to remove all the obstacles we can from the paths of disadvantaged kids. And this includes tuition. Throughout the years I was in the student movement, I have seen manhy cases of people dropping school ’cause they just could not afford it (and tuition is only one factor) – sometimes because their parents were on the cusp of the financing curve (though not giving them a penny), i.e. the kid was not admissible to financial aid, sometimes because they had had the bad idea of starting in a program they did not like and were running out of semesters allowed within the “loans and bursaries” program, etc. (I don’t particularly like to argue from anecdotes, but I’ve never seen reliable stats on the marginal impact of tuition increases within one jurisdiction – in my views, existing statistical analyses are fraught with problems, such as dubious inter-country comparisons).

    Shortly put, the point is to remove as many obstacles as possible, while giving as much help as is possible. Decreasing tuition does the former. Yes it would currently be somewhat of a hand-off to rich kids, and that gets me back to the deeper point.

    Why should rich parents pay only for their kids, or even mostly for their kids? Rich parents should pay because they are rich, not because they have kids. It would be very easy to design a taxation scheme that solves the issue you seem to raise.

    For example, suppose we put another income bracket, starting at the 80% income level, and design it so that it covers, on average, the entirety of what is needed to move from actual fee levels to free tuition (about 500-550 millions in Québec). And there you would have it: Rich parents would pay for their kids AND poor kids, and rich people without kids would stop free riding.

    I don’t see how that would constitute a subsidy to rich kids, save for the fact that rich would better share the burden amongst themselves.

  • So if the question is whether free tuition will solve those problems, the answer is no. A much more comprehensive support system is needed, as well as probably a culture change in some respects.

    Agreed. Which is why I put free tuition way down on my own list of priorities. Without those other changes, free tuition amounts to free money for rich kids.

  • This all seems very upside down to me.

    The funding has to come from one place or another. So, do we prefer to draw it from a progressive (albeit not progressive enough) tax system, or highly regressive tuition fees? The answer seems awfully clear to me.

    Moreover, while differential participation rates have a wide range of underlying causes, one of them is surely the disincentive of high tuition fees, with clear implications for the discussion here.

    Finally, the question of accessibility is not the only one. Even if those without the means to pay for tuition fees are able to access education through loan financing, this leaves a whole segment of the student population (myself included) saddled with private debt after graduation.

    Not only is this an unwanted burden, but if you look at the situation on the aggregate, we’ve exacerbated the existing disincentive away from socially-productive, but low-paying work.

    If I’m leaving university with $20,000 in debt, rather than this being a time of opportunity and possibility in my life, it’s a time of burden. I can no longer afford to go devote myself to an activist cause to which my time at university has awakened me. Instead, I’m immediately slotted into the workforce. Or, if I’m law student, with even higher debt, I likely can’t afford to devote myself to human rights law or public defense.

    Of course, tuition fees are only one facet of the problem, but their regressive nature shouldn’t be ignored.

  • I appreciate Stephen’s concern that free tuition will be of greater benefit to kids from upper-income families. But progressive taxation is a great way of addressing this issue. With progressive taxation, upper-income families already contribute more — so what if their kids benefit? A second factor is the long-run tax implications: kids who benefit from free tuition will have higher incomes and will pay back a higher share through progressive income taxes.

    It seems to me that Stephen’s logic could be taken in the opposite direction — that tuition fees should be raised to reflect the full cost of providing post-secondary services. But this would mean an astronomical increase in fees (perhaps five-fold over current levels), and would definitely cause access problems.

    The social benefits of education at pretty much all levels, from early childhood up to post-secondary, exceed the private benefits, so public subsidy is warranted. That said, if there is some fee paid (lower than present levels) there is more likely to be meaningful commitment on the part of students, because we all know cases where university can be a way of avoiding reality and chilling out.

  • I’m not advocating reducing public expenditures on PSE; quite the opposite. My point is that rich kids should get less than those from low-income households.

    There are three main ways we can allocate PSE funds:
    a) targeted grants for low-income students
    b) debt relief
    c) subsidised tuition

    Of these three, only c) involves giving rich kids free money. It shouldn’t be at the top of a progressive policy agenda. In fact, it should be at the very bottom.

  • You can’t be more progressive with a higher flat tax.

    How come we don’t see our health care system as a subsidy to the health of the rich?

    Do the poor lose when the benefits they have are also bestowed on the rich?

    Why don’t we ask the low-to-middle income families what they would prefer between paying less for their kid’s university studies and the satisfaction of knowing that the rich pay more for their education? Would we be terribly surprised if they preferred the former?

    The problem is that lower middle income and middle middle income families don’t have enough to pay for, say, three kid’s worth of university education, yet will never get the necessary financial help to do so if the fees are high, or else the system will end up costing more than if there were no tuition fees at all.

    Therefore, it is a fundamental axiom of the “grants for the poor” and other such “helping those who can’t pay” kind of wishful thinking programs that a solid 30%+ of the entire student population can’t pay for their studies and have to rely on minor miracles or extreme debt to complete their degrees. Miracles which of course don’t always happen, resulting in unfairness and inefficiency. Debt which cripples the graduates financially and prevents them from participating fully in the economy, which is counterproductive considering that the economy relies more heavily on the economic activity of university grads than that of average taxpayers. It is also counterproductive in that the debt acquired by these grads is wasted because it did not produce or encourage anything, it just cost the state a smaller amount of money to fund PSE which, with the federal surpluses sitting at $15 billion, is a negligible objective compared to extracting maximum economic participation from university grads in a knowledge-based economy.

    This means that higher tuition is neither a socially just nor an economically efficient solution to the lack of funding of our universities — not as efficient and socially just as a dedicated, recurring federal transfer for PSE from the $15 billion federal surplus.

  • This makes no sense. At all.

    First, there’s ‘bait-and-switch’. We all agree that low-income students need help, and that debt is a serious problem for a significant minority of graduates. My conclusion is that we need programs to support low-income students and graduates with onerous debt loads. I don’t see the logic that says that in order to solve these problems should give rich kids free money.

    Why don’t we ask the low-to-middle income families what they would prefer between paying less for their kid’s university studies and the satisfaction of knowing that the rich pay more for their education? Would we be terribly surprised if they preferred the former?

  • {oops. Hit the wrong button}

    They wouldn’t just be getting ‘satisfaction’ – they’d be getting the *money* that would have otherwise gone to subsidise rich kids.

  • I don’t consider you’ve responded to my arguments. You’ve just basically restated the wishful thinking argument I just exposed then refuted.

    I’ll repeat because maybe I didn’t do it well the first time and because I generally dislike just responding with three lines.

    More than just the poorest of poor students need help. Actually, 50% of students get some kind of financial aid, which means more than 50% of students would need help if tuition is raised. You can’t help more than 50% of students, and give more help to those 50% you used to help, without ending up losing money or without tuition having to skyrocket to balance things out.

    As I said, the argument “we’ll help those in need” looks great on paper, and is excellent political rhetoric. It is, nevertheless, much too complex to manage and is in practice not possible, both because there are too many people to help and because figuring out and applying the right criteria involves costs that are too high. It is much simpler and also more efficient to lower tuition and enjoy the benefits of a cheap-to-train workforce.

    Also, student debt is not just an individual problem, it’s a collective problem because the debt didn’t help the economy in any meaningful way. But I’m just repeating myself here again. Reread my earlier post.

    I’m sorry you think this doesn’t make sense. Maybe my English isn’t up to snuff. Or, maybe you’re obsessed with not giving the “rich kids” a free ride.

    Which they don’t, by the way. Many, many, many rich parents don’t want to pay for their kids’ education, first because that’s how you get and stay rich – you don’t pay for stuff you don’t legally have to pay for – and second because they think that’s a good way to have them learn the “real life”, i.e. not getting what other poorer kids get. I think THAT doesn’t make sense, but you can’t obviate the fact that thousands of “rich kids” are actually dirt poor because they get no help from their parents and, thanks to wishful thinking governmental policy like the one you suggest, they don’t get help from the government either because, well, they are “rich kids” as in “kids of rich people”. Which means, if tuition went up thanks to policies like the one you suggest, they are far worse off than any other student in Canada, and if it’s high enough they won’t be able to study at all without working a few years beforehand, which is unjust and inefficient.

  • As I said, the argument “we’ll help those in need” looks great on paper, and is excellent political rhetoric. It is, nevertheless, much too complex to manage and is in practice not possible, both because there are too many people to help and because figuring out and applying the right criteria involves costs that are too high.

    Not at all. Governments do this all the time in other contexts: GST rebate, Child Tax Credit, etc. There’s nothing particularly complicated about it.

    Also, student debt is not just an individual problem, it’s a collective problem because the debt didn’t help the economy in any meaningful way.

    Huh? We should give free money to rich kids who graduate without debt because someone else has a heavy debt load? Why not give it instead to the people who are having difficulties paying off their loans?

    And I am prepared to believe that there are some Cruel Rich Parents out there who won’t help their kids, and that some flexibility to handle these cases would not be out of line. But I’m not prepared to believe that this phenomenon is sufficiently widespread to make it a basis for general policy: it’s not a coincidence that rich kids are twice as likely to go to university.

  • We are reaching the confines of productive debate. You keep repeating the same argument over and over again and I am starting to do the same. There is only so many ways I can refute your sole claim that low tuition is a subsidy to the rich. Incidentally, you might be distressed to know that your argument is the slogan that the neoliberals use in the context of tuition hikes. As if the neoliberals have a problem with subsidizing the rich! You pretty much KNOW something ISN’T a subsidy to the rich if it’s denounced by the neoliberals.

    But back to the factual arguments. As someone who has worked for about 10 years with the loans and bursaries program, I am well placed to certify that the system is so complicated that, even when extra money is being funneled in the program, it is almost impossible to lower the total student debt without causing a net cutback to the total aid some students receive. Every positive measure has a number of effets pervers, and these in turn mean that some students lose when more money being put in the system. This aberration should convince you that there is no wishing that will ever be wishing enough to make the system fair and efficient. The main flaw in your argument is that it remains at the abstract and theoretical level, and does not take into consideration a little thing called reality. Economically, you are almost right. Policy-wise, you are dead wrong. The measures you advocate will have the opposite outcome you claim you want to achieve.

    Also, I challenge your claim that management costs are negligible. This is extremely counterintuitive and warrants some backing up.

    Finally, you pretty much confirmed my suspicions that you have an irrational bias against students that have what you call “rich parents” (who knows what you mean by that and whether or not you are referring to a negligible portion of the population). The problem of parents not paying for their kids’ education is much more widespread than you acknowledge, and this should be once again intuitive for those of us who don’t have a monolithic vision of “rich families” striving to perpetuate their class superiority by fully-funding their kids’ education to establish some kind of familiy dynasty. And even if this was indeed the case, we would need to make sure education is accessible to all, completely free even, to ensure that the numbers of “dynastic” kids are drowned by those of “normal” kids, but we see here the limits of such, dare I say, paranoid ramblings.

    Have you forgotten about taxes? You know, that system that funds education and social programs by taking more money from the “rich parents” and the “rich students” (if they have a good job while they study) and by fully taxing these “rich students” when they become “rich taxpayers”?

    What is the obsession with taxing students while they study? That, to me, is what doesn’t make any sense. Students don’t have money, that is what being a student almost always means. Let’s just wait to tax them when they have the means to pay. By the way, this means all their life. By the way, these taxes they’ll pay will return to the State 8 to 10 dollars per dollar the government put in their education. So, instead of making it a debate along the very questionable lines of “rich students” versus and “poor students”, you make it a principle that “rich taxpayers” pay more than “poor taxpayers”. And you have a just and efficient society.

    You don’t seem to realize that it is impossible to help everyone, and because this is the case tuition hikes mean very average students need to convince a bank to sponsor their studies as a prerequisite for them to enter the PSE system, which is barbaric in nature and which is the sad reality of Quebec, where tuition is the lowest in Canada. Imagine in New-Brunswick…

    I cannot stress enough the reality that you simply cannot help everyone you claim to want to help, because there are way more people to help than you are willing to acknowledge.

    You want “the rich” to pay more than “the poor”? Change the taxing system.

    And, for G-d’s sake, let the students study.

  • There is only so many ways I can refute your sole claim that low tuition is a subsidy to the rich.

    Actually, there’s only one: go to the data.

    Incidentally, you might be distressed to know that your argument is the slogan that the neoliberals use in the context of tuition hikes.

    Which is why it’s so frustrating that soi-disant progressives insist on putting free money for the rich at the top of their policy agenda.

    You don’t seem to realize that it is impossible to help everyone

    But that’s exactly what I’m saying. We can’t help everyone, so why help the rich?

  • You win. You’re the most determined to repeat your sole claim ad nauseam.

    And I’m not the soi-disant progressive who wants to kick poor students out of school just because they can’t get a bank loan to compensate for the inadequate loans and bursaries program.

  • Not that I necessarily want to revive this discussion, which indeed seemed to have come to a standstill of its own accord after interesting exchanges, but I still have a few conceptual problems with Stephen’s position.

    Suppose we take society as a whole, considering on aggregate the amount of resources it generates and the way they are consumed. For any given endeavour, then, there are two distinct questions: How much should we devote to it and where the resources should come from.

    Let’s assume for now that we have decided on the amount that should go to the university system, as has been assumed so far, and concentrate on where the resources are to come from.

    If we gear the tax system right, it is not very hard to figure out a way to have the whole thing financed by the rich. The point here is that we completely divorce the fact of being a parent from the responsibility of paying for the system: If we view education as a social enterprise, both through the reproduction of various “useful” trades and a way whereby individual members of society may realise their dreams, then the collectivity should shoulder the costs, on an ability-to-pay basis. Again, rich parents will pay because they are rich, not because they are parents.

    Stephen’s main concern seem to be not with that line of thinking in particular, but with priorities. For example, as I understand, he suggests that we should target money to the poor in various ways (primary school programs, debt relief, etc.).

    My main problem is that in doing so, he seems to take the total amount of resources for all these programs as given. As if there was a common given pool and that the government then selects various recipients. The argument is then that for reasons of parentage, university students should have a lower priority.

    I believe this is a wrong conceptualisation of the issue. Coming back to my earlier abstraction, since the university system is public, there is an implicit social decision that XX% of social resources are to be put in the university system. The cost is then divided mainly between public funds and tuition fees.

    But then tuitions fees act like a tax. That is, once we have selected XX%, the only question that remains is where to get the money, not whether the money is going to go to the system, thus crowding out other programs. If we remove tuition fees, and raise taxes at high income, we make the overall tax system more progressive. It does not remove any resources – potential or currently applied – from the poor.

    In other words, a large portion of the debate about tuition fees can be reduced to a consideration of the overall tax system, viewing tuition as one of its components. Shifting out of tuition into income tax makes the system more progressives, regardless of how the use of public resources is determined.

    Now if the argument is that a greater portion of the social output should go to help the poor, that is another question, which should be kept distinct from how these resources are collected.

  • The argument is then that for reasons of parentage, university students should have a lower priority.

    Not at all; I would add the adjectival clause ‘from upper-income families’ after the word ‘students’. My point is that the public money allocated to increasing the tuition subsidy will go disproportionately to students from upper-income households.

    Bringing the tax system into play is a distraction, because somewhere, somehow, someone is going to end up saying ‘rich kids are entitled to extra public money because their parents pay more in taxes.’ I can’t think of any other context where progressives would be willing to make that claim.

  • I think I’ve finally figured out the main problem, the reason we are having this “dialogue de sourd”: You view tuition reduction (or the fact that students don’t pay the full cost) as a subsidy, while I view tuition as a tax. This has very different implications.

    Keeping all else constant, if we view this as a subsidy out of a given pool of government resources, then it can be faulted for not targeting the neediest. This is debatable, as Boris and Chris have tried to argue, but there is some merit to that position.

    If, on the other hand, it is the pool of services we take as given, assuming university is going to continue to be open to the same number of people, then tuition fees are simply another mean to garner revenues for the same set of services (government funds are fungible). So if we decrease tuition fees and increase a more progressive component of the tax system the overall system becomes more progressive. Tuition fees are probably not the most regressive component of the system – though this could be debated if we believe Boris’ stats on who actually ends up paying them between kids and parents – being beaten by consumption tax amongst others, but it is certainly more regressive than a well-targeted income tax.

    I think that for Qu̩bec, and possibly many other provinces, the tax view is the most appropriate, since university financing is guaranteed. The service is there Рall that remains to determine is how to finance it (well reinvestment would be nice to, but this is another matter).

    This is not always the case. For instance, in Massachusetts, where I am currently studying, the state gives a fixed amount – revised every year – to the public university system. Some years when the state was in trouble due to various dubious projects such as the Big Dig in Boston, the budget was decreased by close to a third, and expenses like book purchases were stopped altogether. In this case, the money spent on the system may be better construed as a subsidy.

    But this is not the case in Québec, where the service is guaranteed, along with others, and where tuition is simply a way to finance the service, a substitute to other means to finance state expenditures.

  • You view tuition reduction (or the fact that students don’t pay the full cost) as a subsidy, while I view tuition as a tax. This has very different implications.

    Indeed it does. But if tuition is a tax, then that means that an economy in which governments were not involved in PSE would be one in which tuition was free.

    If those who provided the labour and capital required to provide a university education were willing to do so without financial compensation, then tuition would indeed be a tax (or rent extraction). But I’m pretty sure that this is not the case.

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