Op Ed: New poll shows that young people embrace taxes
Thursday, November 29, 2012
From the youth-driven Occupy movement in New York that spread around the world to the youthful anti-tanker movement to the dramatically successful student demonstrations in Quebec, young people in North America have been enjoying a resurgence of political power.
Some commentators are quick to dismiss young activists as idealistic and out-of-touch with the tough economic times in which we find ourselves. They say that young people don’t understand the connection between the massive social and environmental challenges and the cost of the solutions.
For example, the Occupy and Quebec student movements both prioritize reducing social inequality and stopping privatization of core public services. Both movements challenge the belief held by Wall Street and Bay Street that we can no longer afford a robust social safety net funded by the tax base—that “the cupboards are empty”, as we heard this week in the BC Budget update. But in rejecting this neoliberal view of public services, do these movements implicitly support strengthening public services by broadening the tax base?
The outrage about the inadequate contribution of the so-called “one percent” is indeed justified, but generating enough revenue to eliminate regressive MSP premiums or tuition fees requires or paying for a new child care program more than a new ultra-rich tax bracket or a surtax on millionaires. It will require modest tax increases for most households. Are the young people who are clamouring for a better world prepared to pay for it?
In short: yes.
Polling data recently collected by Environics for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives shows that Canadians aged 18–29 are two times more likely to be willing to pay higher taxes for improvements to public services (housing, welfare, child care etc.) as those 60 and over.
So much for the idea that today’s young adults are the “Me Generation”—obsessed with our own needs and short-term gratification. It seems that, despite being absorbed by smartphones and texting, this generation is still deeply social and understands how government’s role in program delivery and reducing inequality is a collective responsibility, funded by contributions from us all.
The results of the Environics Poll are encouraging given what the next generation has been saddled with. From environmental degradation to growing inequality, the status quo is simply not an option. This Environics polling result suggests that a better world is possible because the next generation knows what it wants and is willing to share the costs of equality.
Op Ed: The Missed Opportunity Agenda
Tuesday, October 30, 2012
The presidents of BC’s six research universities have considerable clout. The public institutions that they are paid handsomely to oversee collectively receive $1.1 billion in funding from the BC government every year.
Their lobbying wing, the Research Universities Council of British Columbia, is funded by “members” (read: the public, the main contributor to universities), and because reputation (not solidarity) means everything to university presidents, the RUCBC excludes institutions like Vancouver Island University and Capilano University, who have the audacity to focus more on undergraduate teaching than “world-leading” research.
These presidents garnered pretty significant media attention recently with their submission to the public consultations for next spring’s provincial budget, which they’ve titled “Opportunity Agenda for BC”. After meeting with the editorial boards to pitch the proposals, the major dailies in Vancouver and Victoria ran supportive editorials.
Whomever is in charge of public relations at the RUCBC deserves a promotion, because these high profile proposals are weak and not deserving of the attention they were given.
The brief’s three demands—an increase in campus capacity, an increase in student financial aid, and an increase amount of private sector partnerships—are astonishingly timid.
The capacity demand (11,000 new spaces) only covers one-half of the proposed increase to international students that the Christy Clark government proposed last spring, let alone expected Canadian enrolment growth.
But it’s the RUCBC’s proposal for a new grants program for students that is bordering on offensive when the whole context is considered.
For starters, it was university presidents who lobbied aggressively to end the popular and effective tuition fee freeze. When they were successful in 2002, they engineered the steepest tuition fee increases in BC’s history, causing fees to double by 2005.
It is also worth noting that when the BC Liberal government eliminated the grants program in 2004, not a word of protest was heard from university presidents.
So now fast-forward to 2012, when British Columbian families have paid roughly $6 billion collectively in higher tuition fees thanks to RUCBC’s efforts, what’s its plan for restoring affordability?
A $36 million grant program, worth $1,500 to 24,000 recipients, or less than one-third of undergraduate tuition fees for one in eight students.
BCNDP leader Adrian Dix has publicly committed to restoring a grant program with three times the budget, and feels so strongly about it that he has declared that he will raise taxes on financial institutions to pay for it.
With infinitely less to lose than Dix in making expensive proposals (and infinitely more responsible for record-high tuition fees), university presidents have been so faint-hearted in their demands that it undermines the efforts of others who seek to make sweeping changes.
University presidents declare that post-secondary education is the best investment that the government can make in the future of BC. If so, why make such a splash with such modest demands?
An election year, combined with the considerable clout enjoyed by university presidents, should have prompted far more ambitious proposals from RUCBC to restore affordability at our publicly-funded universities and colleges. Instead, the university presidents’ so-called Opportunity Agenda is an opportunity missed.
Op Ed: The Senate gives tenure a bad name
Reading through the new publication about post-secondary education from the Conservative-dominated Senate, I’m reminded of a conference I once attended about academic freedom and the consequences of the commercialization of research.
Many qualified speakers addressed participants about the clear and present dangers of selling off our university research departments to the highest bidder. But one speaker said something that I will never forget. The late Dr. David Noble of York University, a noted rabble-rouser and brilliant academic, said this to his fellow tenured professors on the issue of academic freedom: “if we don’t exercise it, we don’t deserve it”.
It was, and still is, a bold assertion for a tenured professor to declare that many don’t deserve to be tenured. He wasn’t just encouraging his colleagues to be bold—he was quite clear that he wanted you to pack up your dusty books in a box and go into another line of work if you had tenure but failed to take full advantage of it.
His message was a profound one that turns the idea of privilege on its head: your freedom to say and teach unpopular or unorthodox ideas is not a perk—it is a duty.
Looking at the Canadian Senate, where those with big names and close ties to the governing party are given tenure in the political sense, how do these elder(ly) statesmen and stateswomen measure up?
The answer is “poorly”. While they are far from analogous, if we apply the broad principles of tenure and the duty to be bold to Canada’s sleepy Senate, you begin to realize how badly we’ve been served by their report on post-secondary education titled Opening the Door: Reducing Barriers to Post-Secondary Education in Canada.
From top to bottom, the entire report is devoid of anything that could possibly be construed as bold, forward-thinking, or controversial. It was as if the Senate had been asked to collect a set of assumptions that virtually nobody could disagree with—or to be more accurate, nothing that the federal or provincial governments could disagree with. The Senate has succeeded in creating a report to be safely ignored by one and all.
By deftly avoiding innovative or interesting policy options in its report, Senator Ogilvie’s committee has unwittingly endorsed the status quo policy malaise in Canada’s public post-secondary education system.
The committee’s recommendations politely ask the government to “encourage” this or “investigate” that or perhaps develop a “strategy” in ambitious moments. The vast majority of the 22 recommendations would cost governments next to nothing, which guarantees that the impact will be similar.
In fairness, there are a few nuggets in the report worth exploring—it would have been impossible during the public consultation process to ignore the message from multiple sources about Aboriginal students, student grants, and tax credits. But despite the witnesses’ testimony about financial barriers, the committee members couldn’t quite expand their imagination beyond the policy orthodoxy in Ottawa.
The result was a luke-warm endorsement of student loan tinkering (interest exemptions during the grace period and lowering the interest rate to prime) and a total retreat from reason on the issue of tuition fees. For example, the report’s mystifying conclusion to oppose tuition fee reductions or freezes seems to take it on advice from one person’s testimony that reducing tuition fees would be very expensive and have “very little impact on participation.” Yet peppered throughout the report are citations from other studies that conclude that tuition fee deregulation of professional programs in Ontario was a disaster for equitable access.
At the end of the day, maybe it is unwise to call on a Conservative-dominated Senate—packed with lawyers and free-market evangelists—to be bold with policy ideas for public education. “Be careful what you wish for” my conscience beckons.
Still, the underlying analysis remains: a group of educated policy wonks with nothing to lose, charged with finding blue-sky proposals to make public education more accessible, have come up with a list of things that governments are already doing , or have pledged to do if post-secondary education ever reached the top of their priorities.
The Senate committee could have helped equip those of us who are looking to reverse decades-long trends of tuition fee increases, record high student debt, chronic underfunding, and a public research fire sale to the private sector. Instead, a drab list of “improve information flow” and “harmonize programs” will barely make an impact where one was long overdue. If anything, this lackluster performance is more fodder for those who seek to end the tenure of Canada’s Senate.
Op Ed: "Welfare Air" ignores the needs of both the north and the jobless
Op Ed: Yamamoto must face the facts
Op ed: What if Stephen Harper declared war on student debt?
Stephen Harper is working hard to earn a reputation as a “hawk” in foreign policy. He’s increasing military spending by billions of dollars. He supports hard-line positions on North Korea and Iran.
But before our next misguided military adventure, it might be useful to look at how the vast sums dedicated to foreign military intervention might have been used domestically.
The Afghan “mission” cost Canadians $18 billion—roughly $1,000 for every adult in Canada. Rather than quibble about the effectiveness of the war or whether we have anything to show for it (other than 37,000 civilian deaths), let’s look at what could have been.
Imagine what would have happened if Stephen Harper, rather than enthusiastically embracing Jean Chretien’s war, decided to declare war on student debt instead.
In 2002, when Jean Chretien decided to join George W. Bush to attack those who “hate our freedom”, student loans owed to the federal government were worth roughly $9.8 billion.
When Stephen Harper became Prime Minister in 2006, federal student debt had surpassed $11 billion and was growing at nearly a million dollars each day.
If Stephen Harper turned his sites on record-high student debt, making young workers and young families his priority, he could have wiped-out student debt entirely with enough cash left over to eliminate all tuition fees this year.
It could have been an investment in the young workforce’s purchasing power, not to mention levelling the playing field for those from economically marginalized communities who are more likely to depend on student loans.
In the United States, student debt has surpassed credit card debt—it is now the second-largest source of debt behind mortgages. If Canada’s graduates were debt-free, it would be a significant economic advantage over the haemorrhaging US economy.
Alternatively, he could have waited until the 2008 recession struck to pull the trigger. During this period, “stimulus” spending was Harper’s fiscal focus. Eliminating student debt would have put hundreds of dollars a month back into the hands of new graduates (most of whom are low- and middle-income earners). This cash reclaimed from student loan payments would have almost certainly gone right back into the economy for bread-and-butter expenses—precisely the goal of government stimulus spending.
A politically unpopular war provides an interesting (and tragic) opportunity to re-evaluate how the government spends our money. Students and our families are often told that the “cupboards are empty” and there is simply no money to take aggressive action against student debt and the rising cost of public post-secondary education.
But virtually any way you look at it, the billions thrown at the war in Afghanistan would have been better spent on reducing the debt burden on Canada’s skilled workforce. Eliminating student debt during the last decade was not only financially viable, but it would have lessened socioeconomic inequalities in the workforce, enhanced consumer spending power, and could have helped vulnerable Canadians better manage during the recession.
Open Letter from the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators
"Your Day of Action is a mobilization that moves BC in that direction and it has our full support."
Cindy Oliver, President of the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators
Click Download to read the whole letter
Op Ed: There's Still No Excuse to Keep Tuition Fees High
Polling demonstrates with stunning reliability that most British Columbians want affordable, high-quality public education. They think tuition fees are too high, and have considerable anxiety about the record student debt that this generation of students is carrying.
Despite the popularity of reducing tuition fees and cutting student debt, the BC Liberals have shown no interest in making university and college more affordable. Tax cuts and more trade with pacific rim countries seem to be the only policies on the radar, and it’s unclear how either issue helps average families.
But in order to divert attention away from the student debt burden created when tuition fees doubled under Gordon Campbell between 2002 and 2005, the government relies on a variety of excuses and half-baked theories.
This time last year, it was fashionable for politicians to cite the higher earnings of university graduates as an excuse to ignore student debt and the upfront costs (tuition fees) imposed by government. Organizations like the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), a small but powerful interest group comprised exclusively of university presidents, has gone so far as to suggest that a university graduate will earn one million dollars more in her working life than a high school graduate.
Enter the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the 2011 edition of its Education at a Glance publication comparing education systems around the globe. When examining all of the costs and benefits of university participation in Canada, the OECD concluded that the average lifetime premium for male university graduates is only $80,000—less than 10% of the AUCC’s fantastical figure.
For female university graduates, the average earnings premium is only $46,000. In other words, the average woman graduating with a university degree today should only expect to net $1,150 more each year in her 40-year working career.
No doubt there are other benefits to a university and college degree in addition to higher wages. Education is correlated with things like better health and greater career satisfaction. Society benefits in a variety of ways too, as does the broader economy. But the fact remains: proponents of higher tuition fees have been grossly exaggerating the individual returns for their own policy ends.
So this year, with the diminishing credibility of the argument that more student debt is okay because university graduates are all millionaires-in-waiting, politicians need new reasons to fend off the middle-class demands for affordable public education.
The new excuse is the allegedly poor financial planning skills of today’s young adults. In an effort you might call victim-blaming, provincial and federal politicians have begun to cling to the idea that students (and therefore their families) are to blame for their own lot.
The mainstream press has embraced the idea with gusto. In the month of November 2011, The Province newspaper wrote no fewer than six stories about the record debt facing this generation—without a peep about the government policies that got us here. Almost all of the solutions covered by The Province were of the self-help variety.
Clever budgeting for students is not an entirely new fad on campus. University administrator and self-styled financial planning guru Murray Baker has made a tidy sum selling his “Debt-Free Graduate” series in which he reminds students to turn off the lights to cut energy bills. Baker estimates his methods to be so effective that he counsels his readers to max out their student loans so they can invest what they don’t spend in the stock market (which, by the way, is fraud).
There may be some truth to the idea that it wouldn’t hurt for students to brush up on their budgeting skills. Unfortunately, this potentially positive approach has—like the millionaire myth discussed above—been used by political opportunists to distract attention from the heart of the matter: sky-high tuition fees.
If the public discourse about fault can be shifted to the victim, so too does the public discourse about the solutions, which is convenient for a government hell bent on tax cuts over investment in public education.
Instead of tuition fee reductions, we get a gimmicky PR campaign to convince us that education is more affordable when you buy less coffee or car pool twice a week.
Of course, even the most aggressive personal budgeting couldn’t change the fact that tuition fees in BC have more than doubled over the last decade and that student debt has skyrocketed into uncharted territory. Clever money management is unlikely to change the interest rate charged on BC student loans which, at prime plus 2.5%, is the highest in Canada.
Better financial literacy won’t hurt, but it is a band-aid solution to a problem caused by government divestment in vital public services. If the government is serious about a BC that is fair and an economy that works for everyone, it should attack the causes of student debt by reducing tuition fees and re-establishing the student grants program that was cut in 2005.
Students reply to Jamie Cassels
University of Victoria Vice-President Academic Jamie Cassels wrote to the Victoria Times-Colonist to dispute facts presented by the Education Shouldn't be a Debt Sentence campaign. The CFS-BC response is below.
Support for students, universities strong
A Sept. 12 letter stated: "Over the past decade, our Liberal government has more than doubled tuition at B.C. institutions. and starved universities and colleges of funding needed to compete in a global economy." The following day it was reported that an average B.C. university student graduates with $27,000 in debt, according to the Canadian Federation of Students.
As the vice-president academic at the University of Victoria during the decade referred to, I have a different understanding of the facts.
Government does not set tuition fees. They are set by university boards of governors, subject to maximum limits set by government. Over the past decade, B.C. tuition fees were indeed increased to bring them into line with fees across the country, but have increased by only two per cent per year for the past four years.
During this same decade, the government did not starve the universities, but paid its share as well, by increasing direct funding to universities by many hundreds of millions of dollars.
The increased funding from tuition and grants has been used to create new programs and courses, to accommodate much higher student enrolments, to provide financial support for students in need and to provide higher salaries for faculty in a competitive labour market.
Average student debt is not $27,000. According to the most recent data, about half of B.C. university students graduate with no debt at all. The median debt for the remaining half is $20,000.
During the recession, public funding for universities has been frozen at 2010 levels. And there are students with very large and unsustainable debt loads. Social and economic development depends upon a strong education system, and it is particularly important that initiatives be developed to enhance educational opportunities for less advantaged members of society.
But it seems wrong to say that the B.C. government, and the taxpayers who foot the bill, have not supported higher education, and the reported statistic on student debt is simply incorrect. Public discussion and good policy should be based on accurate facts.
Jamie Cassels, Faculty of Law University of Victoria
In a letter to the editor on September 21, UVic vice-president academic Jamie Cassels challenged figures presented by students to illustrate the massive student debt problem in British Columbia.
Unfortunately, in Mr. Cassels’ haste to defend the government, he neglected to cite a single reference for his factum. On the other hand, we are happy to provide the well-established sources for our figures:
1. Average student debt in BC is $26,738 (Price of Knowledge by the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, 2009). Given that tuition fees have increased since 2009 and BC has eliminated its student grants program, we do not expect this figure to decline. This figure doesn’t account for private debt (credit cards, lines of credit, family loans), making the true figure substantially higher.
2. The BC government regulates tuition fees. In the absence of regulation between 2002 and 2005, tuition fees doubled. That the individual institutions (including Mr. Cassels’) behaved so irresponsibly in an unregulated environment is an embarrassment, but it does not take the burden of ultimate responsibility away from the BC Liberal government.
3. Per student funding in BC is lower today than in 2001 (BC Budgets; Confederation of University Faculty Associations-BC). This decline is likely due in part to the addition of (unfunded) spaces over the last decade, but the fact remains: our institutions are being asked to do more with less during a time when a most new jobs require post-secondary graduates.
These facts are no doubt what leads British Columbians to conclude that tuition fees and student debt must be reduced. In an Ipsos poll commissioned by the Federation of Post-secondary Educators of BC last month, well over 80% of respondents supported a freeze or reduction in tuition fees.