Monday, August 16, 2004

Wells on Education

Paul Wells has taken a break from Paul Martin bashing (unfortunately) and dead Jazz musician eulogies (thankfully) to focus on his latest obsession: post-secondary education.

His argument is that rising tuition is not the disaster everyone makes it out to be so long as bursaries are available to help lower income students. And I agree completely. It's in society's interest to make sure as many young adults as possible attend University. But the rich will go regardless of tuition fees because University is such a worthwhile investment for the individual. So if Vincent Lecavalier decides he wants to attend University next year during the NHL lock-out, he'll go regardless of the tuition rates the Quebec government imposes on their Universities. However, for a kid who spent his High School days working part-time at La Belle Province selling hot dogs to help his single mom pay the bills, the price for a semester at McGill will have a monumental impact on his ability to attend.

What I'd like to see would be for the federal government to get their fingers into post-secondary education. Why not put a national plan like this in place:

1) The federal government gives special "tuition loans" to every single low income Canadian (it would take some time defining this) attending University. These would cover 100% of their tuition fees.

2) These loans would need to be repaid only 10 years after graduation. At this time, any students living in Canada would see their loan absolved.

In effect, the government would be paying the tuition fees for all low income Canadians. The loan system would ensure that our brightest students stay in the country upon graduation, helping to fight the brain drain. The provincial governments would not have to pay any money into this plan but their province would lose the program if they cut back University funding bellow a certain level.

Would this plan be financially feasible? Well, I don't know the exact numbers but let's say for arguments sake that there are 1 million students enrolled in post-secondary education in Canada. There's a wide range in tuition across the country but let's say the government agrees to make the loans for 4,000$ a year. By making it a fixed amount, it encourages Universities to keep the cost of tuition down (since, if you charge four grand a year in tuition, students get in free, whereas 6 grand a year in tuition means they're on the hook for 2,000$...which is quite a bit more than zero). Therefore, the feds would be on the hook for 4 billion a year. Eek! But, remember, that's if they pay for everyone. If they only cover the poorer students, say, the bottom half, it works out to 2 billion a year. Which is still a lot of money but it's far less than the pharmacare program and considering this would be a historic legacy program, I think it would be well worth the investment. Studies have shown that every dollar invested in education pays back 7 to 10 dollars in the long run and countries who have offered free tuition have seen incredible economic results.

I know post-secondary education isn't as sexy or politically popular as health care but a program like this would be one of the best things the Canadian government could institute. It would be bold and would demonstrate vision. And that is why it isn't likely to happen anytime soon.


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