September 14, 2006

Demanding the impossible in the back to school election

Demanding the impossible in the back to school election
Tuition can rise all it wants if people are willing to pay for it

It should make for interesting politicking when back to school sales and an election are happening at the same time. But so far, in the campaign and beyond, students seem ready take it on the chin-- and in the pocket book-- accepting rapidly rising tuition fees with little protest.

Summer heartbreaks and hangovers won't be the only things making returning students cranky this year; average tuition rose 5.8 per cent across New Brunswick, the second highest increase of any province, according to Stats Canada.

But, as of September 7, the New Brunswick Student Alliance, the Province's largest student advocacy group representing more than 18,000, hadn't even bothered to post an election-related press release. Either they are highly disorganized or, like the majority of their members, they're apathetic about provincial politics.

More than 25,000 students are enrolled in New Brunswick's universities and community colleges; they could easily crown the premier on September 18.

Both major parties, the people essentially responsible for current tuition turmoils, are rolling out the blood and circuses to impress ambivalent, listless student voters.

During a recent press conference at St. Thomas University, Shawn Graham promised a Liberal government would give $2,000 grants to every first-year university student and scholarships for some students who have already enrolled.

The Bernard squad has mostly focused on primary education thus far, promising to hire 500 additional teachers and reduce class sizes if reelected.

Post-Secondary Education and Training Minister Jody Carr decided the province ought to pay for Fraser Paper Inc. to train its employees, signing a $2.6 million check to the corporation.

Neither of the governing parties have the audacity to mention tuition rollbacks; those would be impossible, we're told.

The majority of students won't be showing up to vote September 18, so fairly meager promises will fall on functionally deaf ears.

According to Amanda Aziz, national chairwoman for the Canadian Federation of Students, "tuition fees and student debt are out of control in many regions" and more inaction, "will only keep post-secondary education out of reach for thousands of students." Unfortunately, enrollment numbers don't entirely back up Ms. Aziz's claims.

Between 1997/98-2001/02, the number of students enrolled in under-graduate programs increased nationally by 8.5 per cent, according to the Canadian Council on Social Development.

Between 1990/91 and 2003/04, average tuition rose 8 per cent per year, four times the rate of inflation.

Our friends at the Fraser Institute, and its half-wit East Coast cousin the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, consistently point to rising enrollment rates as evidence that more expensive education isn't shutting people out.

"Demand for education is inelastic," says Dalhousie University economics professor Micheal Bradfield. In economist speak, this means school is kind of like bread, soap or home heating oil; a necessary good people will continue to purchase even as the price rises. Education is something society has deemed necessary for success and professional advancement; thus people are willing to pay for it.

And, at this point in global economics, people of all political parties and persuasions agree that education is paramount for survival: individually and nationally. Rising tuition fees haven't decreased total enrollment, yet.

However, higher costs and the ensuing debt servitude, inevitably scare off some students coming from low income homes, propagating the continued dominance of Canada's elite.

According to a 2001 StatsCan survey, people from families earning more than $100,000 per year were twice as likely to attend university as those coming from families earning less than $25,000 per year.

Leaving aside the standard left-right dichotomy about education financing and participation, rising tuition fees have more sinister social implications than just making education more expensive. Pressure from student debt forces the artist to become a graphic designer; the environmentalist cynically morphs into a consultant; and the journalist moves into public relations.

Young engineers, like my cousin Amit, can't find decent work building bridges or designing solar powered homes, so they take jobs that pay the best and do the worst.

After finishing his engineering degree and bouncing around with small start-up firms who kept going under, my cousin got a job designing military communications systems for Northrop- Grumman. He hates the idea of it and understands the military industrial complex in its violent totality, but what can you do when there are debts to pay and a kiddo on the way?

If students in New Brunswick are serious about lowering their tuition and raising hope for a more just society they should take a page from the political playbook of their Quebecois cousins.

Currently, Quebec has the lowest tuition in the country by far: this academic year, undergraduates who live in the province will pay an average of $1,916 per year.

Some argue that lower tuition will impact educational quality, as schools will have less money to upgrade facilities and hire top notch staff, but Quebec boasts two of the strongest universities in the country: McGill and Laval.

Quebec's educational advantage isn't a function of fate but a product of political struggle.

In the Spring of 2004, Quebec's Liberal government, led by ex Conservative honcho Jean Charest, tried to cut $103 million from grants and bursaries for students.

More than 70,000 post-secondary students shut down their universities and went on strike.

They organized protests (some drawing more than 200,000), hosted educational events, and lobbied government.

At the height of the strike, 150 angry students showed up at a Liberal Caucus meeting to demand the $103 million cut be in reinstated. Bureaucrats locked them out; so students knocked down the doors with a battering ram amid the sting of pepper spray and bruises from police batons.

Quebec's Provincial Government eventually gave in to pressure from students and the broader public. They rescinded the cuts. The students won.

During another series of student protests, this one from Paris in 1968, the slogan 'be realistic, demand the impossible' was spray painted across campuses and throughout the city as a whole. If lower tuition isn't possible in New Brunswick, in this election and beyond, then maybe it's time to give the impossible a chance?

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