What does free tuition look like?

Is it even practical?

written by Matt Stickland
December 10, 2016 8:58 pm

In early November, students marched the streets of Halifax demanding free tuition. It was loud, there was anger, there was politicking and there were signs and chants. There was no mention of what free tuition might look like to implement.

In New Brunswick, the government decided to give free tuition to students whose families made less that $60,000 a year. However, they didn’t increase the funding to students overall. That free tuition came from other student loan funds. If you didn’t qualify for free tuition, the government also couldn’t afford to give you as much in loans.

In Newfoundland the government cut all student loans and made them non-repayable grants. For students this was great, but not so much for the average taxpayer. Paying for university cost the government $538 million and added considerably to the province’s debt.

The government borrowed $1 billion to pay for the grants and reduced funding to Memorial University.

So if those two examples didn’t work, what would? How does a province make university free?

If the province promises to pay all tuition there is nothing stopping universities from raising the price of schooling. Universities are currently for profit, so what’s their motivation to keep tuition low if the government is just going to start throwing money at them?

Another option would be to build a provincial university in Nova Scotia that would offer free tuition. Perfect, what does that cost? Demand to attend would be huge. It would cost a lot to build a school today that is even similar in size to Dalhousie.

The lowest ballpark estimate for this hypothetical project is hundreds of millions. Dalhousie’s operational costs this year are $404 million. Nova Scotia’s budget had a surplus of $17 million this year.

Where would the money come from for this school? Would there only be one school? Would the government have to build multiple schools to make room for all potential university students?

Considering how the provincial government is facing a potential teachers strike because they don’t have room to increase their education budget, the option of a provincial university is likely out from a financial standpoint.

The federal government is the logical choice to create a state-funded postsecondary education system and they could probably swing it financially. But because education is provincial, a constitutionally mandated jurisdiction to federally run postsecondary education would likely open up a constitutional challenge.

So what are we to do? I don’t have a good answer for that one. It’s easy to be an armchair activist and armchair politician.

Education is important, university is important. But is it important for everyone?

I was in charge of a warship and submarine without having a degree. My brother is making a living as a musician having toured with Coldplay, Alessia Cara and in January is touring across the country with Matt Good. Christy Clark is the premier of B.C. None of us currently have a degree.

Free education absolutely needs be available to those who need it. It should be available to those who want it. But it will likely never really be a priority because logistically it’s damn near impossible to integrate it into or replace our current system.

And we already get 13 years of free education. If you can’t get a job with your degree, then that’s an article about our economy, not our tuition price.

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