Note: Before you start reading please know that this is a big article for a big topic. Sit down and relax for this one. Take the phone off the hook and maybe grab a coffee or a beer. For you students out there, the total word count on this puppy is about 4,500 words. But don’t worry, there are some fun pictures and videos to keep your attention. And, not only will this article help inform you about free-tuition for PEI, but at the end you will find a form that will help you to quickly send your support to the premier.
When I was in elementary school at Eastern Kings Consolidated, a poster on the wall used to catch my eye. Shoot for the moon, it said. Even if you miss you’ll land among the stars. And I have to admit, it worked. It inspired me. As a kid it made me question why I couldn’t aim high. What was there to lose?
As I got older I made friends with people who went to other schools around the Island. They told me that they had that same poster in their schools too. So it seems like Eastern Kings wasn’t that unique after all. Looking back it makes me think that perhaps those posters were just the result of a bureaucrat with the school board who had an action point to “order motivational poster for schools”. Perhaps she ordered them in bulk. That should be inspiring enough, she thought as she checked it off her list.
One of my goals of shooting for the moon was to attend university. Get an office job, one of my uncles told me as a kid. Don’t break your back like I had to. It seemed that in order to get ahead than university or college was the way to go.
But today young people on PEI face a bit of a catch-22. A bachelor's degree is required to get an entry level job in the workforce. Yet the cost of getting that degree is the cost of a small mortgage.
The return on investment isn’t there anymore.
And so big questions remain. Should PEI offer free tuition to university and college students? How much would that cost? Who benefits? Who pays? Why now?
The high level of tuition fees is no laughing matter. Actually it’s pretty serious. Thousands of university students across Canada are renting themselves out to “sugar daddies” to help pay their school fees and living costs. A spokesperson for Seeking Arrangements told the National Post that the average monthly “allowance” agreed upon by clients is about $2,700--not including gifts or other freebies. Ultimately it boils down to cash for sex.
Last November, the National Day of Action brought dozens of people out in Charlottetown to protest for affordable tuition. Mary MacPhee, who is now PEIs National Executive for the Canadian Federation of Students was there. She told Mayzil that students came up to her and explained that there couldn’t afford keep paying for their medication because of their unaffordable school fees.
MacPhee, who is now PEIs National Executive for the Federation of Students is one of the Islands few public activists for free tuition.
The cost of university and college has risen dramatically over the last 20 years. And it’s still going up. This year the price of tuition for a full-time student at UPEI is $6,030 buckeroos. When you tack on fees for things like athletics, library resources, e-learning, student union fees, student centre fees and more, the price climbs. Plus there are textbooks--which cost an exorbitant amount, parking fees, the cost of rent, food, internet, telephone, and the odd beer. It’s not cheap, to say the least.
Plus this year the cost of tuition went up another 3.1% across the country--3% at UPEI..
After four years of hard studying--and the odd beer, Canadian students are left with an average of $28,000 of debt. Today it's also common practice for students to take five years to complete their first degree. One of the reasons is that they’re so busy working part time to pay for it all.
Students leaving university today are carrying debt the size of a small mortgage. If you weren't aware, the Latin meaning of the word mortgage is death pledge. That’s not a type of loan to be taken lightly. Accumulating mortgage sized debt before becoming an active member in the workforce is a very bad thing for both the individual and society as a whole.
Post-secondary is the new basic level of education that people need. High school diplomas no longer make the cut. At this point high school dropouts can be viewed the same as elementary school drop outs. As in, they shouldn’t exist. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an elementary school drop out. Admittedly, elementary students are under the age of 13 and sometimes wet the bed, but still...
Today 70% of job openings require a post-secondary education. Youth are being corralled into getting a university or college education. Then, by the laws of economics--because there are so many people with degrees compared to little demand for new employees, it’s harder to land a job with just a bachelor's degree. Plus the expectations of employees has risen. After such a hefty investment youth are being left with very little return. Now masters degrees and Phds are needed to secure well paying jobs which cost even more money.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
It’s interesting to note that after the second World War, the federal government passed the Canada’s Veteran’s Charter in 1946. In doing so veterans were given free post-secondary education. It drastically changed the landscape of university across the country. Because of that act, prestigious schools like the University of Toronto, Memorial, Carleton and the University of British Columbia saw massive expansion. For three years--until 1949, there was a tent city on the grounds of UBC to house the influx of veteran students.
The era following the second World War is remembered as a prosperous era. Between the years of 1960 and 70, enrollments in Canadian universities increased by over 300%.
However, the 70s and 80s saw the beginning of neoliberalist policies start to take root in Western societies. The changing economy would lead to a major decision by the federal government in 1996.
After all, education is the responsibility of the the provinces. But the provinces are dependant on Ottawa for transfer-payments to meet those needs.
So it was in 1996 that the Chretien government made severe budget cuts. They included an 18% slash to post secondary education programs. Premiers and university presidents across the country must have been grimacing as they watched that budget speech. Altogether the provinces had roughly $2.3 billion dollars yanked from them that was earmarked for post-secondary education each year. From that point on, provinces and institutions were left holding their hats trying to figure how to make ends meet. Naturally, tuition prices started to rise.
Student were left to foot more and more of the bill. Between the year 1999 and 2012, student public debt almost doubled to about $28 billion. That’s just public debt. That doesn’t account for private student loans or lines of credit.
In 2015 the debt owed to the Canada Student Loans Program was $19 billion dollars. The interest charged to all borrowers that year alone was $540 million dollars. Please take a second and think about how big those numbers are.
It’s estimated that clean drinking water for the entire planet would cost around $10 billion dollars. That’s also about the price of the London Olympics. The entire country of Jamaica would cost about $15 billion.
Studies show that when people have free access to university and college, society benefits as a whole. An article from The Atlantic explains that more educated countries consistently have better governments, on any number of ratings.
One of the results of a well educated populace may pleasantly surprise you. In a paper published in the Journal of Law and Economics, the authors concluded that “educated citizens complain more. These complaints lead to better conduct by officials fearful of being punished, which in turn leads to better accountability and a higher quality of government.”
The authors say that people with a higher education are significantly more likely to lodge complaints about their government, about general services, police abuse and corruption.
So if you think you’re a good complainer now, imagine how much more effective you would be with a masters degree, or PhD.
But more than complaining, studies show there are other major benefits.
In a paper titled “Education and Economic Growth”, the authors explain that countries thrive when their educational systems thrive. “The more educated the citizens of a country are, the more likely their personal and societal economies are to develop and succeed.”
Being more educated increases economic growth and stability.
Of course, money isn’t everything. Besides boosting economies, having a more educated society makes people happier and lets them live fuller lives. After years of studying, people tend to feel more content and in control of their lives. It gives them the ability to access part of society they may not of had access to before.
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), “educated people are more actively involved in various societal activities such as voting, volunteering, political interest and interpersonal trust.”
Not just being happier, but the level of trust is higher among an educated society.
An educated community is a united community. Anne Bert Dijkstra, a professor at the Arizona State University explains that when habitants of a country come together to participate in shared democratic practises like voting or partaking in national polls and surveys, they experience feelings of solidarity and nationalism as a collective unit working to move their country forward.
And so--considering the challenges that students are up against, and the apparent advantages of having free tuition, I turned my focus to PEI. For the most part this is what I heard:
The National Day of Action in November 2016 was covered by the CBC and The Guardian. Dozens of people turned-out to the protest in Charlottetown, and thousands in cities across Canada.
At UPEI, the mood wasn’t so optimistic.
Johnathan Rix, then Vice President Academic and External told the CBC that the UPEI Student Union (UPEISU) opposed the protests and the Canadian Federation of Students goal of abolishing tuition.
“You could argue that if we could target the funding to only students that need the money the most, and the other half of students, their education is already paid for. They don't have financial barriers,” Rix told the CBC.
A few months later, Nathan Hood, then President of the UPEISU wrote an article for The Manitoban, the University of Manitoba’s student newspaper. In it he calls for a more pragmatic tuition policy.
“Close to a month ago,” Hood writes in the article, “I was in Ottawa advocating on behalf of students to members of Parliament, senators, and federal ministers. It was clear to me that our politicians are seeking pragmatic solutions to student issues. Fervently promoting the policy position of free tuition, for which there is currently little to no governmental appetite, should not occur at the expense of more reasonable policy positions that have far greater chances of implementation.”
At the end of the 2017 school year Hood was replaced by UPEIs first international student union president, Hammad Ahmed. Around the same time, the university announced that it was raising the tuition again, by 3% for the 2017-2018 year.
The UPEISU put out a press release saying they were concerned about the price hike. But they also stated that:
“The tuition increase was justified as a necessity in order to counteract budget pressures faced by the university which would otherwise lead to cuts in staffing and services.”
The UPEISU said the tuition increase was justified…
Hoping to better understanding the UPEISUs stance on this subject, I reached out to them to talk.
“Unfortunately at this time we decline an interview,” Fallon Mawhinney, the unions director of communications replied in an email. Rolling up my sleeves I asked asked the question that needed to be asked. “Why?”
Mawhinney said that because of the time of year the council reps were too busy. Plus the two executives who were best able to talk about the subject were leaving on a trip soon.
Clearly it’s not a subject the UPEISU is excited to talk about. Assumingly a student council president who makes an estimated $27 thousand dollars a year, or one of the vice presidents who makes around $15 thousand would be willing to talk about such a prominent topic.
Instead they have been safely toeing the government line.
On PEI the activism to stand up for students and push back the tide of high tuition fees is barely there. Yet when governments try to up the costs for students in other places, the backlash is fierce.
In 2012, Quebec was witness to the Maple Spring. The liberal Charest government announced that it planned to raise tuition fees from $2,168 to $3,793 over the course of five years. Young Quebecois weren’t having it.
At its height, nearly a quarter millions students protested against the tuition hikes. A few months after the protests took place, the liberals lost government and the Parti Quebecois took office and halted the price hike.
Around the world there are about 18 national governments that have made tuition free to its citizens. That includes most of the European Union, Scandinavian countries, Brazil and Sri Lanka.
Having been shut-down by my local student union, I opened a map and looked east, across the Atlantic. The internet is full of anecdotal evidence about the successes of free tuition in European countries. I wanted to hear from the horse's mouth just how good or bad those experiences have been.
Scotland seemed too easy. So did the Nordic countries like Norway or Sweden. Perhaps because of their upper-hand in the global economy. My finger landed on Slovenia, one of the countries also listed as having free-tuition. A country I knew little about.
As I learned, Slovenia burns the most candles and owns the most tractors per capita in the world. They’re also infamous for having their mail mixed up with Slovakia. But they also have a troubled past. After the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 90s, central Europe saw the breakup of Yugoslavia. In 1991, Slovenia, one of those states, succeeded and a short war followed to retain their independence.
In Slovenia, the University of Ljubljana in the country's capital is listed as the best post-secondary institution in the country. Taking a shot in the dark I sent off an email--in English, to their media relations office. I didn’t expect a reply. I assumed that those stereotypically cold Europeans would be see my email, sigh, monotone-ly say something existential, puff on a cigarette, then leave the office for the their lakeside cabin at Lake Bled.
Or perhaps Canada’s proximity to the french culture has really distorted my perspective of Europeans.
A couple days later I was surprised to get an email from a girl named Živa, the vice-president of the student union council at the university. Darja, from media relations had sent her my request. In return Živa provided me the names of Nika, Gregor, Sara, Veruh, and Jošt who were more than willing to chat about their tuition-free student life in Slovenia. “You can contact me directly,” Živa wrote. “If there’s anything else I can do for you just let me know.”
Compared to UPEISUs response, well...
Nika first heard of Prince Edward Island in a 2000-piece puzzle with a map of a world on it. Although she’s never been to Canada, American TV shows have aptly provided her the common stereotypes about this country like saying eh a lot, getting a lot of snow, and having a lot of moose.
Her favourite show at the moment is Outlander and she hates spiders. Especially when they crawl out of nowhere. She is also the newly elected student council president of the Faculty of Education at the University of Ljubljana.
Nika is clearly a go-getter.
“My parents support both me and my sister,” Nika tells Mayzil. “ They pay for rent in an apartment in Ljubljana so we don't have to drive from our home town to our faculties every day, even though we both have a scholarship. They believe that if we study hard enough to get a scholarship, we deserve to spend it however we please, not to pay for essentials. I wouldn't say that most of the other students need to work. Some have to, to help support their families and themselves, but some work to get money for travelling, vacation and such.”
Not only do students in Slovenia get free tuition, they also get a subsidized meal every day.
“It includes a proper meal, soup, salad, fruit and the maximum payment is 3,87 € (~ $5.75 CAD) for all of it,” Nika explains. “It allows students to eat more healthily, spend less money and have an actual meal outside.”
Meanwhile Jošt, another student from the University of Ljubljana, is more directly involved in student activism to keep tuition free. He is a mechanical engineering student who belongs to an organization called Iskra. In his response to my questions he apologizes for his English and not having had time to pass them through a language editor. Jošt also directly tells me that his responses are more technical in nature.
And it’s true. Like a good engineer he’s to the point and doesn’t worry about adding colour.
“I heard of Prince Edward Island before,” he says without offering an explanation then moving directly into his point. “One of the main pillars of the free higher education in Slovenia is so-called consensus about the right to accessible education...The main point of this consensus is that tax-payers agree to pay higher taxes to maintain the educational system, the same goes with public health system, pension and disability insurance and so on. The majority of people are pleased with this, no matter political affiliation.”
Ah, there it is. The question of taxes. Bingo...
When it comes to talk of taxes possibly being raised for any reason, Islanders get their backs up.
“Of course there is complaining about taxes,” Jošt says about Slovenia. “but the anger is mostly orientated towards other things, [like] ineffective investments into state-owned companies. But the most important decisive factor for accepting higher taxes is that we are very aware of the fact that the average family isn’t financially strong enough to support a person while studying – where the financial state of the average family should be understood as the state of the majority of families in Slovenia. And because we understand knowledge as a way to the future of our society (if I may use more visionary style), we feel the need to enable general education free of tuition fees.”
Here lies the big question.
It may be proven to be successful to societies to have free post-secondary education. But at what cost to PEI? A rough estimate of covering the cost of undergrad tuition at UPEI each year rests between $23 and $28 million dollars a year. That’s a big chunk of coin and it’s understandable why politicians would want to avoid that topic if the public isn’t demanding it.
As Mary MacPhee explains, she submitted a paper to the PEI legislature about this. Their reply was sincere but there main concern was how do we pay for this?
The money is there. It may just mean reshuffling priorities.
As an example, the capital budget for transportation, infrastructure and energy for the 2017/18 fiscal year is $39.5 million. Until 2022, a total of $216 million is earmarked for that department.
The second highest amount of money is going to Health PEI. Between 2017 and 2022, $86 million in capital expenditures are allocated. Finally, education is earmarked $52 million until 2022.
Additionally the province stood to make $923 thousand in tuition reimbursements in 2017. Nearly a million dollars.
For a province with an estimate operating budget of $1.8 billion dollars every year, it is possible to allocate money toward free tuition.
BUT, WHY NOW?
The price tag attached to free tuition is a large one. There’s no sugar coating it, it’s a really big investment. We have seen from other countries who have implemented it that it can work. And studies prove that the advantages of a well educated society benefits everyone.
But here’s an even bigger question than the question of how much. Why now?
The reason is the world is in the midst of a new economical revolution:
“Anything that is considered a repetitive task is becoming cheaper for machines to do,” James Sawler tells Mayzil. He’s been an associate professor of economics at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax for about 12 years.
In 2011 Sawler co-authored a report called "A way forward for post-secondary education in Nova Scotia" for the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives. It was written as a response to a provincial government paper that focused its support on low income students.
Sawler uses fun, economical words like elasticity, fixed cost and fixed margin. But in his conversation with Mayzil he also uses two words that highlight what the new workforce needs in a quickly changing economy. Critical thinking.
“So in order to compete in the economy you need the skills that provide you with critical thinking. And university is one of the few places to acquire those skills. Without those skills people will be without employment,” Sawler says.
Sawler sighs as he talks about the reaction his 2011 report garnered.
“I think the students are interested in it. The general public, not particularly,” he says. “ Which is somewhat sad. I think we have a lot of people who are my age or older who had a much more subsidized university education. My tuition when I first went to university in 1988 was $1800 dollars. And you could easily take a summer job and afford the university tuition and books. Now the problem is students--if they can afford it, they’re faced with working long hours during the school year and that affects the quality of their education...
“Youth unemployment rates are very high. Are they’re likely to stay. If they have a whole lot of debt when they graduate, then they need to move to where the jobs are. And that’s out of the maritimes. That has obvious impacts on our economy in the long term as our young people are leaving.”
Sara, who is originally from Macedonia and currently studying at the University of Ljubljana believes student leaders play a critical role in this subject.
“Most students wouldn’t have the slightest idea about what is going on if there wasn’t for the student representatives,” Sara tells Mayzil. She explains that at her university “students also have their own representatives in all university bodies, like the senate, and committees and such, who really pour their energy into defending the rights of students.”
Sara's message to Islanders:
“I hope that you will succeed in your goal since post-secondary education, in my opinion, shouldn’t be a luxury or a very stressful and possibly health-threatening period of your life. It should be a period where you are able to learn and take part of activities that interest you, it’s the part when you develop professionally and personally. The tuition free post-secondary education enables you to find more time to master the theory as well as practice in your field of studies without having to worry if you are going to make it through the month. It enables academic greatness and it benefits your physical as well as mental health. Not to mention that after you finish your studies you are debt-free.”
Nika’s message to Islanders:
“In Slovenia students have free education, can get subsidized food and apartments, while also having free health insurance. With free insurance we can focus on our studies without having to worry about how to pay our doctor. Our system is not perfect, but we are not shackled to paying off debt all our lives. Having to work multiple jobs and declining medication is dangerous for the individual as well as the society. Being a tuition-free student allows you to dream of what you want to do with your life, no matter what background you come from. To you college is viewed as a necessity, yet priced as a luxury and it is completely illogical. I once read a quote: 'What if the cure for cancer is trapped inside the mind of someone who can't afford an education.' Where would our world be if talented, brilliant, intelligent people weren't able to improve themselves just because they aren't able to afford it. Change begins with you, believe in it, fight for it.”
I also want to note that Nika was willing to talk about this subject during an extremely busy time for her. She was in the midst of organizing the 70th anniversary celebration of her faculty. In that time she helped create a music video to honour the milestone. Take a look for yourself, it’s better than most Canadian movies.
Smart investments are made before they're popular--before everyone else puts their money where their mouth is. The biggest concern holding back the topic of free-tuition is the fear that it costs too much and that the return isn't worth it.
There are some common arguments that are null-in-void when it comes to paying for free-tuition.
Don’t let any bitter, old bastard tell you that kids these days are lazy. Or, I worked a summer job to put myself through university, so can kids these days. Because that doesn't speak to the situation today. Tuition and fees have skyrocketed for the latest generation who are going through post-secondary.
I’ve been there. When I was in university working my ass off while also working a full-time job, I wondered if some of the intense 18 to 20 hour days would be worth it. I don't regret going to university, but I can't honestly say that having a degree gave me an upper hand in the workforce. It's going to be years more before my loans (and interest) are be paid off.
Or the argument that money doesn't grow on trees. The money is there, that's not an issue. It's a matter of reshuffling our priorities and adjusting our public budgets.
If PEI is to compete in the new economy that is unfolding in front of our eyes than we need to make drastic changes.
Objectively speaking, free-tuition is a good thing for everyone. But naturally, no politician is going to jump on that train until the public starts demanding it. And right now Islanders aren't all that vocal about the issue.
I quickly want to highlight the work of Mary MacPhee. Last year when she was the UPEI Grad Student Association President, she helped organize and participate in the National Day of Action that brought out dozens in Charlottetown in support of free-tuition. Right now she is one of the few Islanders publicly pushing for positive change even when it's relatively unpopular.
So if action starts with each Islander, here's what you can do. Fill out the form below and click send. It will only take a minute or two then your message in support of this topic will be automatically sent to the premier's office. It's just that easy.