Higher education's role in equitable development

Canada recently witnessed its largest act of civil disobedience – ever. On 22 May, a reported 400,000 students, teachers and their allies marched through downtown Montreal in a brazen show of condemnation for the recently passed Bill 78, which essentially renders ‘unauthorised’ protests of 50 people or more illegal.

This landmark event in Canadian history is part of a much larger story – economically, politically and geographically speaking. Importantly, it is a story about priorities.

University students in Canada’s Francophone province, Quebec, have been diligently protesting drastic tuition hikes (75% rises over the next five years) since December 2010, when the provincial government announced that it would begin to raise fees for the province’s excellent universities.

Fees in Quebec have historically remained low, thanks to pressure from strong and committed student unions, meaning that access to higher education in Quebec notably exceeds any other Canadian province (never mind the neighbouring United States).

Equitable human development

But what do the tuition fee hikes have to do with development?

Canada is a ‘developed’ country. Put simply, development is about quality of life. Equitable development then is about universal improvement of quality of life – or improvement of quality of life for everyone.

Human development encompasses health, education and access to goods and services. Followers of a human development approach (for example, the United Nations) contend that quality of life is intimately bound to these things. They recognise them as priorities.

Canada’s development agency CIDA – Canadian International Development Agency – is engaged in improving quality of life in ‘underdeveloped’ countries. Like other development organisations, it promotes equitable human development in these regions, including equal access to things like clean water, healthcare and education.

Students are protesting against privatisation

But what about equitable human development at home?

Development is not an end-goal; it is a process, meaning there is always work to be done. In this case, the work is ensuring that quality of life remains high and is equitably accessible.

Quebec’s protesting students are defending their right to education – and thus to a high quality of life. Their actions should give us food for thought – as a society, what kind of importance do we place on a healthy, well-educated population?

The student leaders articulate their cause using the language of inequality, notably standing in solidarity with the Occupy movement. First and foremost, they are rallying against the privatisation of the university and the restriction in access this will mean for a large proportion of potential and current students.

However, their critique has expanded to the privatisation of other public services, including healthcare, a universally accessible service that has traditionally been a source of Canadian pride. In the name of ‘austerity’, the provision of public services is under threat, and the students in Quebec are taking a stand. So too are students in Chile and Spain.

What does it mean to privatise higher education?

The privatisation of higher education demands that universities are run like businesses. Among other things, this means weaker links between schools and the federal and provincial governments, and that the university is marketed and made more competitive in the ‘education market’.

The student is viewed as a consumer of a product – in this case, an education. Those departments that are most profitable (business and the hard sciences, for example) are strengthened, while social sciences and the humanities are more likely to face cuts to faculty, staff and resources.

Costs are increasingly covered by raising private funds (through corporate and private donations) and by students themselves through tuition fee hikes. Tuition fee hikes, of course, mean fewer people can afford to go to university at all.

In Quebec, government officials have suggested that an increase in student financial aid should help solve the problem of accessibility. However, financial aid is based on family income, and is therefore available only to those applicants from the lowest economic classes – middle and upper-middle income families are not eligible.

While this might seem fair, it masks the reality that, for various reasons, not all parents fund their children's post-secondary education – regardless of capacity to afford it. There is therefore a large group of young people intent on attending university left with two options: take out student loans, or take out student loans and work on the side – in either case, accrue debt.

While tuition costs have increased throughout Canada over the years, minimum wages (read: student wages) have not proportionately followed suit.

Even more alarming is the fact that global youth unemployment is now at 75 million – beyond those on minimum wage, how are unemployed youths going to pay for the education that is supposed to open up employment opportunities? Indeed, in the current national economic climate, jobs recovery for the young is almost non-existent.

The privatisation of higher education in general, and the tuition fee hikes in particular, have a gendered element as well. Women in Canada continue on average to earn less than men: for every dollar earned by a male, a woman earns 71 cents.

A rise in tuition fees then means that fewer women will be able to afford the cost of higher education. In turn, this means fewer women will have access to better paying jobs that demand post-secondary qualifications.

Bearing in mind that half of Canadian students graduate with an average debt load of nearly $19,000, those women who do manage to access post-secondary education will spend a disproportionately longer time paying it off than will their male counterparts.

Policy choices

Political leaders, among others, have commented that 'there is no free ride' when it comes to education – it must be paid for. That education has a cost is logical. However, the set of options provided by proponents of this argument – raise taxes or raise tuition fees – is distorted.

If there is sufficient funding for $9 billion dollars to be spent on fighter jets, or $114 billion dollars for bailing out banks, questions must be asked about why provincial and federal pockets seem to be empty when it comes to the question of education.

This risks an oversimplification of the issue, but it serves as an example of what might really be at the heart of such arguments: namely, a case of misplaced priorities and a myopic view of what it really means to ‘invest’ in the wellbeing of a population.

Thinking in terms of priorities allows us to consider how the billions of dollars currently raised in provincial and federal taxes might be meaningfully repurposed away from some investments and into others.

If we are talking about human development – about quality of life – then realistic, universal access to education needs to be on the discussion table. By this I mean education that does not come hand in hand with student debt and grim post-graduation employment prospects.


From this, several conclusions can be drawn:
  • • Equitable development necessitates equal access to goods and services. Therefore, public institutions that provide universal access to such things, including universities, must be protected, strengthened and improved.
  • • Equitable development is not only something to be worked for in ‘underdeveloped’ contexts – it must be defended and struggled for in developed countries as well.
  • • The privatisation of education is not in line with the principles of equitable development.
The Quebecois student protesters, as well as their allies, have not been granted much in the way of solidarity from fellow Canadians in the Anglophone provinces. This is not only disappointing but also short-sighted.

As a generation of young people that have inherited quite a socio-economic mess – and for those preceding generations that might ally themselves with us – we must ask ourselves: who does this proposed tuition hike really benefit?

Do we want an increasingly large youth population doubly burdened by debt and unemployment? Does that sound equitable? Or sustainable?

Before passing judgement on the Quebecois, or Spanish, or Chilean student protesters (as spoiled, lazy) perhaps we might want to think long and hard about where our priorities lie and what kind of future we envision for ‘developed’ nations.

* Tara Cookson is doing a PhD in geography at the University of Cambridge, funded by a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, where she is critically exploring the effects of the more recent post-neoliberal policy shifts on women's lives as carers within the Latin American region. This article was first published on Sense & Sustainability.