One of the biggest stories of the year has been the ongoing protests in Montreal, started in response to tuition hikes, but now grown into a much broader movement. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets to voice their displeasure over the provincial government’s handling of the protesters, the repressive legislation drafted to discourage people from exercising their rights to peacefully express their opinions, and any number of other personal reasons. Of course some people have taken advantage of the groundswell, and groups like the Black Bloc anarchists have tried to hijack the attention being given, but for the most part, the protesters themselves have been the ones turning the agitators to police and maintaining the general order. All in all, it’s a huge movement with a lot of momentum, but an increasingly vague focus, similar in many ways to the Occupy protests we’ve seen over the last year or so.
In response to the protests, a lot of people on the outside have been saying that the students are spoiled brats who should shut up about their tuition increase because they’ve been enjoying much lower rates than students in the rest of the country. There is a lot of merit to this argument in the eyes of many a John Q. Public watching from the sidelines, but I’m not convinced that there really is a lot of meat on the bone here. Yes, Quebec university students have paid much lower tuition rates than their counterparts across Canada; I’m sure by now most Canadians have seen the National Post infographic that has been making the rounds on most of our facebook feeds for the past month loudly attesting to this fact. However, while this has been used as a bludgeon in an attempt to undercut sympathy with students facing a huge jump in the cost of their educations, to me it conveys a totally different message. What I get from reading that graphic isn’t “Oh, those Quebec students are being crybabies, they’re paying half of what I did, and you didn’t see me out in the street protesting,” instead I start thinking, “Why did my education cost twice as much as it would have in Quebec?” Telling me that someone else isn’t being screwed over quite as hard as I am shouldn’t give rise to feelings of envy (though it certainly does for many people, hence the infographic showing up everywhere); it should inspire feelings of outrage at how badly I’m getting the shaft. This is not a new strategy, I’m sure the Romans knew what they were doing by treating their house slaves better than their field slaves in order to make both forget who their common owners and oppressors were. Being told that another worker in the sweatshop is treated better shouldn’t make you forget who runs the shop, but people can be petty and short-sighted, so we forget the context and just focus on the points of inequality we’re told to get mad about.
These are extreme examples, of course, and should not be taken as meaning that students are like slaves and sweatshop workers, because they obviously are not. The examples are only meant to highlight the principle involved through raising it into sharper relief where it can be seen more clearly. It’s not slavery or forced labour, but it is exploitation in its own way. Students are being handed more and more of the burden of paying for their educations, while the rest of society gets to reap the benefits that come from having a better educated population for a cheaper and cheaper price tag. Say what you will about elitism, but you can’t argue that a society with fewer doctors, engineers and thinkers is better off than one with more; it’s not a tenable position to even entertain the thought of defending. We all gain greatly from the efforts students put in during their time at school, why shouldn’t we all bear the cost of those schools? And it’s not just in tangible terms you can put on a balance sheet and figure out to the nickel, there are any number of intangible benefits society gains from a better educated public. Besides more doctors, nurses, engineers and managers, we also get better artists, better writers, and people who can better explain the flaws or benefits in a given public policy our government puts forward for our approval. The cynical part of my brain wants to stick on this point for a while and go on in depth about how the people setting education policy are doing things the way they are because they’re also the people who want to set any number of other policies they’d rather not have explained or examined by people who are educated in how to spot bad policies and arguments. Suffice it to say that there are people in government who could be seen to have a vested interest in seeing the general education level drop, particularly in the Liberal Arts and leave it at that.
Another point many people seem to be unaware of is that when you declare bankruptcy, student loans are the only debt that can’t be included in those proceedings. Your mortgage, your car loan, every other form of debt can be covered by bankruptcy, but no matter what happens, you will be paying off your student loans until they are done with you. Why is this? You could make an argument that your house, car, and other assets can all be foreclosed upon or seized, but your education can’t be repossessed, but is this really a solid objection to make? If your house burned to the ground and your car was stolen, and then you subsequently declared bankruptcy, it’s not like the bank is going to magically rematerialize your home and car in order to resell them, so this can’t be why student loans are the unforgivable debt among debts. Maybe it would be helpful if we stepped back and looked at who takes out student loans, and saw that it’s not usually the children of the wealthy applying for financial aid, it’s the middle and lower class kids racking up the student debt. Here’s where I’m maybe going to let my paranoia run a little, but in terms of upward mobility, what moves people up faster than education, and what keeps them down more surely than massive debts? If you wanted to sit down and think of a way to ensure that people on the lower rungs didn’t start climbing upwards, could you think of a more effective way to do it than pricing education well out of the reach of most families and making student loans unforgivable? That covers both your bases, you have fewer low-income families sending their kids to school, and the ones who do come out of school with nearly a mortgage worth of debt they need to dig out of before they can get back to zero. Better yet, if it turns out that those graduates from lower income families can’t find gainful employment in their field and wind up at the point of declaring bankruptcy, making the tens of thousands of dollars represented by the average student’s loan unforgivable will guarantee that they never get out from under the load put on them.
In the interest of disclosure, I feel I should mention that after earning two university degrees myself, I have student loan debts I’m not likely to have paid off before my son starts university. I knew what I was signing up for when I applied, but I also bought into the received wisdom that a degree is as good as a license to print money, and without one you’ll never get ahead, so I chose to take on that burden with open eyes. I do regret it now that I have a family, and especially now that I’m unemployed, but at the time it was a rational decision made with my full awareness of the risks involved. My objection isn’t that my student loans should be written off because I made a bad bet on my employment prospects, it’s that students should not be presented with that decision in the first place. I firmly believe that universities and other post-secondary schools ought to be seen as public investments in our collective future, and that we should endeavour to see to it that anyone who wants to spend the time improving their skills and their minds by earning a degree or diploma ought to be supported by everyone, because everyone benefits from it. Sure, there are going to be drop-outs and people who try to work the system to avoid “real” work, but punishing the majority for the actions of a very small minority shouldn’t be a governing principle for any country, any more than I think public high schools ought to be de-funded because the odd 16-year-old drops out. I don’t dream that free post-secondary education is something we’re going to see in this country any time soon, if ever, but making it affordable is something we should be striving for.
In closing, put it in a little smaller context and apply all of this to public high schools. Would anybody reasonably say that we’d be better off if families were made to pay directly for the full cost of their children’s high school or even elementary educations? Would we be better off as a society if poor families couldn’t send their kids to school and we wound up with a largely illiterate population? If it’s so ridiculous in this context, why can’t more people see that it is just as ridiculous when you bring it back out into the area of post-secondary schooling? We all gain when education is available to more people, we should all share the cost. Heaping it on students because it was their choice to go to school would be ludicrous if you said it about elementary school, what makes a university education any different? The protesters in Montreal aren’t just right, they’re not going nearly far enough in pressing for higher education for all, for the good of all.