Abolishing the debt-sentence

Observations from a debt-drained Dalhousie veteran

This week’s issue was put together during reading week. Unsurprisingly, most of my regular contributors did not have material to send in. No problem. One of the hot-button issues on campus this month is the proposed tuition increase, and when it comes to tuition, I have opinions enough for 10 contributors.

Before we go any further:  I’m not an economist, an education specialist, or a dictator. Nothing that follows is a detailed plan or a demand; it is all nothing more than a series of observations that I hope might spark some thought and discussion that deviates from the usual tropes of tuition-increase outrage.

What qualifies me to talk about this at all, let alone spend 2000 words blabbing on about it? I may not be a postsecondary education guru, but I AM a student who has been studying at Dal for a long, long time, and if there is one thing I’m familiar with, it’s the hardship posed by high tuition.

Law school is expensive. I’ve spent the last few years working 40 hours a week between multiple low-paying student jobs for the ‘privilege’ of graduating with over $40,000 in debt. This is considered a pretty light debt sentence in my program, but it came at the cost of countless sleepless nights spent catching up with schoolwork, the complete abandonment of anything remotely resembling a social life, and some serious exhaustion-related health complications.

So trust me, few people have a stronger belief in the concept of free (or at least vastly cheaper) post-secondary education than I do. What follows are two articles that outline both the problems I see with student advocacy for lower tuition as we have traditionally pursued it, and some thoughts as to how we might plausibly achieve truly universal access to postsecondary education.


The old ways aren’t always the best ways: winning the fight for lower tuition may require a change of strategy

To paraphrase a tired but accurate journalistic cliché, the definition of futility is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Students have fought for lower tuition for decades, and yet the result—ever increasing tuition—has almost always remained the same. Perhaps it’s time that we took a critical look at our longstanding advocacy strategies and isolated some of the issues and assumptions that might be obstructing real progress.

Nothing that follows is directed at the actions of any individual student politician or activist—the following issues I’ve decided to highlight come from a decade of personal observation and untold hours reading through the Gazette archives.

Issue #1: We don’t have enough power to force change.

While we students sometimes tell ourselves that the fix for high tuition is as easy as rising up, showing our anger, and demanding change, the reality is that we are starting from a terrible bargaining position. We simply lack the leverage to force anything.

Of all the complex network of actors involved in funding post-secondary education, provincial governments ultimately make the final call on the vast majority of government funding that universities receive.

So what sort of firepower can Dal students bring to the battlefield when engaging the provincial government with more aggressive tactics?

Photo by Patrick Fulgencio

Photo by Patrick Fulgencio

The best measure of our influence is the number of bodies we can march to the polls on Election Day. According to Dalhousie’s website, Dal, by far the biggest university in Nova Scotia, has something like 18,500 students enrolled. That sounds like a decent number of potential voters, until you realize that 56 per cent of those students are from other provinces and an additional 14 per cent are international students. That leaves 30 per cent of the student population, or roughly 6,150 students, who are both able to vote and immune to the government’s ability to time elections outside of the school year.

Compare this with the number of senior citizens in Nova Scotia: 153,375 according to the 2011 census (and given that there were an additional 137,425 in the 55-65 bracket, the number is likely much higher now). Without even considering the differences in voter turnout between the students and seniors, you can understand why the government recently retreated from proposed changes to seniors’ pharmacare after about five seconds of outrage, while students have been complaining about tuition for the last century with almost nothing to show for it.

The best thing we’ve figured out to do with our numbers so far is put on moderately well attended protests, but these generally fail to achieve anything practical. The government doesn’t take them seriously, since we have almost no bargaining power. The average voter tends to view them with anything from amusement to anger, depending on how disruptive we are and how late they are for work when we block traffic. In the end, our more aggressive protests give us a chance to blow off some steam, but they don’t actually change anything.


Issue #2: We oversimplify things.

The problem of crippling tuition isn’t simply the result of a bunch of greedy ‘fat cats’ wanting to watch students squirm.

I suspect that we characterize it this way partly out of frustration and partly in an effort to address our lack of actual power.

In theory, the simpler we make our message, the more likely we are to achieve student solidarity. Giant leering effigies of Stephen McNeil and Richard Florizone make for great rallying propaganda. The issue is simple: tuition is too high. The villains are clear: those paper mache monsters with their fingers steepled in the classic Mr. Burns pose.

The reality of the situation is obviously more complicated.

The government only has so much money to hand out—and they are already giving Dalhousie alone almost $200 million dollars in funding. Free tuition for Dal students would require another $150 million or so in funding diverted from somewhere else. Is it going to be healthcare? Not if the seniors have anything to say about it. The P-12 school system? The Nova Scotia Teachers Union and the angry parents of 150,000+ students might have a few issues with that.

Some have suggested raising taxes on ‘the corporations,’ because corporations are easy, vaguely evil-sounding targets.

Higher corporate taxes may well have their time and place, but even this solution isn’t as simple as we’d like to make it sound. Higher corporate taxes would lead to corporate flight, which would mean fewer available jobs. (You’ll only fully understand just how important of a consideration this is about two weeks after graduation, when the clock starts ticking on those student loans.)

One recent public announcement that comes to mind is the government’s granting of up to $1.5 million in payroll rebates to Oxford Frozen Foods. Several students in my social-media circle decried this decision as another example of the government favouring corporations over impoverished students. The company makes an easy target: it is owned by the Bragg family, one of the wealthiest clans in Nova Scotia. Why should they get $1.5 million when we can’t even afford name-brand KD?

This is an easy appeal to emotion, but it isn’t the full picture. That $1.5 million is contingent on Oxford Frozen Foods creating 110 jobs (an $18.7 million salary investment) in a part of rural Nova Scotia that has faced serious economic and demographic decline. I’m not qualified to comment on whether this is the most efficient way the government could be spending our tax dollars, but given the impact it will have on the lives of the residents of Oxford, I suspect that many voters view it as at least as appropriate an investment as the government’s $200 million grant to Dalhousie.

This issue is clearly complicated. Simplifying it will get bodies out to rallies, but won’t get us any closer to solving any of the root problems. There a number of legitimate competing interests at stake, and only by keeping these in mind will we develop more innovative, potentially successful solutions to our problem.


Issue #3: We remain committed to a system that was designed to educate 19th century elites.

When Dalhousie was founded, universal education wasn’t on the agenda. This institution was meant for the elite few who could afford the luxury of paying learned tutors to teach them the esoteric disciplines that would allow them to fit in as cultured members of the upper classes.

The demographics at Dal have changed, but the classic classroom education model has remained largely the same. This is the only system we have ever known. Perhaps because of this, we have difficulty imagining other possibilities.

We are convinced that the only way to improve access to education is to increase funding for the system as it exists. We protest for more government funding, but we never stop to consider how we might transform the current system to make post-secondary education more sustainable and accessible.

Consider the upcoming tuition increases. The government is actually increasing our funding by $2.3 million, but faculty and staff raises account for an extra $10.7 million in new expenses—about 79 per cent of the deficit that we will be forced to cover.  This is good for the professors, and it would be foolish to fault their union for seeking wage increases, but these increases directly affect our tuition.

By continually allying ourselves with the Dalhousie Faculty Association in defence of the system as it currently exists, we have severely limited our ability to advocate for lower tuition. Until we recognize that the current system isn’t necessarily the best system, we will be stuck fighting an uphill battle against other, more influential interests for access to the government’s limited resources.


What might a free university education look like? Rethinking our postsecondary education model could put free tuition within reach

I don’t want to be the guy who rains on everybody’s parade without at least suggesting an alternative, so let me assure you that I am not all gloom and doom when it comes to the future of postsecondary education. I genuinely believe that free tuition is an achievable goal—and I actually think we can reach it without a major permanent increase in government spending.

I know that proposal sounds a lot like a lazy DSU election promise, but there is reason to believe that, if we have the will to reorganize, we already have the tools to make it happen.

Photo by Patrick Fulgencio

Photo by Patrick Fulgencio

Consider Harvard’s edX program. Through edX, Harvard provides a number of massively open online courses (MOOCs) for free. Students watch lecture videos interspersed with practice exercises. They may use online textbooks, interact with other students and teaching assistants through class discussion forums, and even participate in online lab exercises.

The revolutionary potential of such a system is obvious. Some of Dalhousie’s biggest expenses include $230 million per year on academic staff, $30 million on administration, $26 million on campus renewal, $21 million on energy, water, taxes and insurance, and $21 million on facilities management.

An online-focused university could offer larger class sizes with no physical constraints. With unlimited online classroom space, we would use up far fewer resources and need to maintain far fewer buildings. We could have a single professor teach the popular/mandatory courses that class-size limits currently force us to divide into numerous sections facilitated by multiple professors. We could further reduce faculty size by supplementing our course offerings with licensed classes from brilliant professors other schools. Assuming government funding remained constant and we figured out a way to cut our expenses by a significant but not inconceivable 37 per cent—$144.5 million off our current $391 million budget—we would be able to offer free tuition.

There would be obvious ripple effects. Dal and the other universities play a large role in Halifax’s economy, and we’d have to think long and hard about the potential economic and human outcomes of such a significant reorganization. This is all just an embryonic imagining of alternatives at this point though, so let’s set the bigger picture aside for the moment and focus on how such changes would affect students.

Could such a system provide the same benefits to students as a traditional Dalhousie education?

The answer to that question probably depends on what you value in your education.

You could certainly graduate having crammed your head full of the same knowledge you leave with now—the ability to replay lectures at will would likely only increase retention for students who have trouble keeping pace with their professors. Government accredited testing procedures could ensure that you earned all of the same qualifications and credentials of a current Dal grad.  The social aspect of classroom education could be duplicated by regular tutorials or study groups facilitated by graduate students—we already do this in most of the larger first and second-year classes. Student societies could still exist for those who had the time to participate and were interested.

Some have worried that any shift in public funding towards online-based universities might create a two-tiered system in which the rich would attend the surviving traditional universities, while the rest of us would attend the publically funded schools. Given that universities can be hubs of networking, such a divide might only widen the social gaps between classes.

I understand this concern, but I think it is outweighed by the benefits to lower and middle class students. Such stratification already exists—for the most part, the truly poor can’t afford to attend university at all, and shockingly expensive schools such as Harvard and Yale already serve as finishing schools for the global elite. Those of us who are working to pay for our education are already missing out on most of the meaningful networking opportunities—I don’t have the space to list all of the of law school socials, firm meet-and-greets, and special guest lecturers that I have missed due to my work schedule. Personally, I would trade any of the marginal social benefits of occasionally hanging out with my richer classmates in a heartbeat in exchange for a big fat zero on my student loan balance sheet.

The benefits of such a system for less privileged students would go beyond lower tuition. Recorded online modules would be playable at any time, meaning that students who must work outside class to pay rent would be able to fit their academic duties around their work schedule. Students who work until midnight wouldn’t have to rely on the poorly transcribed notes from their 8:30 am classes. Students who had the chance to pick up extra shifts at work wouldn’t have to make the choice between paying rent and attending class. Students with children or steady day-jobs would be able to complete their studies at night. This flexibility alone would open the door to large numbers of people who would otherwise never be able to thrive at (or even attend) university, whatever the price of tuition.

Again, this rough sketch isn’t meant to be the definitive answer to our tuition problems, but rather a prompt to start imagining alternatives to the status quo. We may never have the political clout to convince the government to give us free tuition at the expense of Nova Scotian taxpayers, but the power to reorganize and redefine postsecondary education is very much within our reach, and is a strategy that is likely a much easier sell to the general public.

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John Hillman

John Hillman is the Gazette's Opinions Editor. John is a second-year law student, but he has been at Dalhousie for much longer than that. Recently discovered cave paintings indicate he was first observed lurching around campus by Halifax’s original human settlers some time during the late Pleistocene epoch. He started writing for the Gazette back when you were in elementary school, but he unexpectedly went off the grid a half-decade ago to concentrate on helping found Punditry.ca, a DSU-focused political blog. Where exactly was he hiding between the years 2009-2013? Certain individuals would prefer he not comment. Why has he returned? Not because of a top-secret Illuminati indoctrination project known only as the Omega Initiative, that’s for sure.

You can email John at opinions@dalgazette.com.

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