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Is higher education a right or privilege?

By in Opinions

The Fulcrum (University of Ottawa)

July 22 2012’s National protest in Montreal against tuition hikes in Quebec. (Photo courtesy Chicoutimi/Wikimedia Commons)
OTTAWA (CUP) — Time and time again, both on and off campuses, the question has been debated: Is higher education a right or a privilege? Both the riots in London over dramatic post-secondary education tuition increases almost two years ago and more recently the province of Quebec coming to a near standstill over a proposed tuition hike make it clear that education is important and citizens take it seriously.

While discussion of the importance of education is by no means new, it has been spotlighted once again by the recent student solidarity tour across Ontario, which aims to lower tuition fees in Ontario. Supporters believe that tuition increases will make post-secondary education inaccessible. But even as they fight vehemently to keep tuition hikes from becoming a reality, many others see things differently.

Point: It’s a privilege

Basic education is a right, but higher education — attending university — is a privilege. This argument may not be the politically correct or even mainstream way of thinking, but it’s the truth.

In the discussion about access to education, one of the topics people bring up tirelessly and repeatedly is tuition fees. In Ontario, for example, full-time tuition sits at approximately $6,000 a year — money that for most students is not chump change. Nevertheless, it’s the price the province has deemed acceptable to charge university goers. And fees are only increasing, which is why so many students are up in arms over tuition prices.

“Look to the future,” protesters cry. “Students can’t possibly continue to pay these fees, and soon enough there won’t be that many students in university.”

But is this a sound argument?

If access to education is what they’re worried about, maybe protesters should look at other, arguably greater barriers to post-secondary education.

Other obstacles begin to affect students long before they even think of setting foot on a university campus.

Your parents’ education level is one of the largest factors in your decision to enroll in university. Likewise, preparation for and information about university while in high school are just as important in the decision to pursue post-secondary education as how much a university or college education costs. These are all preventing higher post-secondary enrolment and will not be mitigated by lowering or maintaining tuition fees.

Universities are also selective by nature, choosing some applicants over others. Usually the successful applicants display strong academic skills and are willing to invest greatly in their education. Everyone has the right to not be discriminated against by universities because of their race, religion, political beliefs, gender or sexuality. However, no one has the right to be a scholar.

Finally, if you can’t afford tuition fees, then you can turn to grants, scholarships, bursaries and loans. The government doles out student loans, which many students do not even apply for. What we need to do is make potential students more aware of this kind of assistance from a younger age, so more people believe they can enrol in higher education.

It is senseless to argue about your right to education when you’ve practically been handed one on a silver platter.

Counterpoint: Everyone has a right to learn

Education is a right and not a privilege. Many countries offer free schooling from ages four to 18 and after that it’s pretty much up to the parents or the student to pay for their education. This system is flawed and hurts society as much as it does individuals.

Education is the cornerstone of a functioning society. Educated and well-informed citizens make sound decisions that sustain both democracy and the nation’s political landscape.

Furthermore, by making higher education more accessible, general society will actually end up saving money. Think about how much cash it costs to support a low-income single parent or keep an inmate incarcerated, scenarios that are far more likely for people who do not continue their education after high school.

By sending more young adults to university, taxpayers end up saving in the long run on social services. For instance, Canadians with lower education levels suffer higher instances of depression and high cholesterol, putting pressure on a strained medical system.

Additionally, our country loses money on the people who drop out of school or choose not to pursue a higher education because people who further their education earn more money and thus pay more in income tax throughout their working lives. According to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, university-educated Canadians earn an average of $46,800 per year, compared to $25,500 for the average Canadian holding only a high-school diploma.

If cold, hard cash is what society is after, then keeping students in school and making higher education more accessible is the way to national profit.

As students, juggling classes, a social life and adequate sleep is difficult enough. Now imagine adding a part-time or even full-time job to the rotation. The fact is that financial aid barely covers tuition and book fees, much less living expenses. Students face enough stresses before struggling to make ends meet.

Without the support of parents or a large scholarship, it’s nearly impossible to complete a university degree in four years.

If higher education was recognized as a right and tuition fees were drastically lowered, we would see more youth considering university or college. For a country that prides itself on equality, it seems unfair that post-secondary education favours more affluent students.

Everyone should have a chance at an education — regardless of how much money they have in their pocket.

Photo: Chicoutimi/Wikimedia Commons

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