Post-secondary education has to navigate two contradictory identities: as both a basic right and a purchasable commodity. This leads to some strange situations. For example, an international student can pay up to five times as much for their education as a domestic student. Imagine being asked to present your passport every time you shopped for groceries, and then being charged according to the words on its front jacket.
‘Citizenship’ is the usual excuse – non-Canadians do not have a right to a Canadian education. In practice, however, it isn’t a right for all Canadians either; even among those that do manage it, the average Canadian graduates with a debt of $27,000. Many will be forced to drop out.
The differences between international and domestic students makes it seem like we have separate interests. Don’t the universities need the extra revenue that international students bring? Don’t domestic students benefit from that revenue? Don’t internationals stimulate the economy, and don’t citizens benefit from that too?
Although the set up isn’t perfect, the abolition of public university tuition fees for both domestic and international students in Germany proves that there is another way to think about education. This begs a very different question from the ones raised earlier: what do school fees mean in the first place? Different tuition rates seem to divide us, but from the perspective of the university administration domestic and international students are alike in one key respect: we are, all of us, sources of revenue.
The BC Liberal government deregulated college and university fees in 2002, leading to massive increases in tuition rates (they had doubled by 2005) until domestic tuition fees were capped to inflation in 2011 thanks to a successful campaign by the Canadian Federation of Students. They remain entirely deregulated for internationals. This is a move that is known to drastically affect low-income families’ access to education.
Officially, tuition hikes are a reaction to the chronic underfunding of post-secondary education on the part of the federal and provincial governments. This is a very real issue. At the national level, in the 1960s and 1970s, over 90% of university funding came from governments. By 2012, government funding accounted for only 57%, the lost funding having been largely compensated for by raising student fees. At the provincial level, since the Liberals took power, real per-student operating grants have declined by 9%. Their latest budget projects a cut of $51 million over the next three years. This is in keeping with the general pattern of their policy, which has cut government funding for post-secondary education in real terms since 2002. They have done this while mandating yearly increases in enrolments.
The effect has been a stealthy privatization of higher learning right under our noses. These policies can be broadly thought of in terms of neoliberalism, a particularly pure variant of capitalism which, since the 80s, has instituted a massive shift of wealth towards the richest segment of the population in part by cutting public spending on social services. We are seeing the Liberal Party’s version of this agenda. During their 2009 election campaign, the provincial NDP promised to freeze tuition; in the 2013 elections, they didn’t even promise that much. And students certainly aren’t any better off where the Conservatives are in power. The truth is, all the major parties, at both the provincial and federal levels, are the agents of neoliberalism. They have been for about 40 years.
As universities come to rely more and more upon tuition and corporate donations to stay afloat, the logic of rights and public good increasingly gives way to the logic of the commodity and the market. Degree production gets leveraged for the market – BC colleges alone generate $7.7 billion annually, over 4% of the province’s GDP; UBC alone spends $1.5 billion every year.
The effects of market integration are familiar enough.
Quality of education becomes less important than the prestige of the university’s name, and bravura marketing campaigns fight with staff and facilities for funding. Students become customers and their turn-over rate becomes a measure of efficiency; getting them in then out again becomes more important than providing adequate support or the best possible learning environment. Education gets put in a production line which is better suited to processing testable knowledge than original thought.
The burden of student debt has helped to transform education. Instead of being a source for our personal development, we attend universities primarily to become employable. What that means is that universities and colleges have become the primary source of the skilled labour that the 1% has come to rely on in order to make their profits. In order to become fit to do the work that the 1% need from us, we have to acquire massive debts while their government gives them tax breaks. Imagine if you had to pay your employer to train you to do the job he was hiring you for. That is the kind of con game that the dismantling of the public university has foisted on us.
This is the context in which degrees become a major export. The deregulation of international fees is a symptom of a disease from which we all suffer. But it is sold to us as a logical response to the market’s invisible hand: UBC must remain competitive with the other major universities. And ‘being competitive” just means making similar profit rates.
But the interference of neoliberal governments have tied universities closely to the market, and university administrators across the nation have been trusted accomplices in this process. As the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators points out, when the BC government deregulated tuition rates in 2002, they also passed “amendments to the College and Institute Act that remove the legislated rights of faculty, staff and students to have input” regarding the president’s remuneration rates. UBC’s previous president made an annual salary with benefits of over half a million dollars. Universities are corporations, and their presidents are CEOs – entrenching them firmly within the 1%.
In addition, the government could not have hammered through their neoliberal policies without undermining the bargaining positions of the teaching staff. So deregulation has come with increased power for the administration and a bloat in university bureaucracy and their salaries. More and more, teaching staff are being put on sessional contracts which weaken their bargaining positions. And research staff are chained to the ‘publish or perish’ treadmill of production.
This was not done by any invisible hand: it was done by the hands of the Boards of Governors and the university presidents. They tell us they had no choice, but they did. Imagine a world where when governments said cut back, university administrators taught us to fight back. Imagine if Arvind Gupta, the President of UBC, were at student demonstrations promising to help us organize against government cutbacks. Imagine if he promised, in the name of accessibility, that tuition rates would not climb one cent more. That would require getting funding from a government whose tax cuts have disproportionately benefited income earners in the same tax bracket as university bosses – tax cuts which the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives estimates to have cost the province $2.4 billion every year. No member of UBC’s upper management has helped us fight back against a government that is starving us out of our education. Instead they have chosen to sell us their tuition hikes, shrugging their shoulders because, after all, it’s not their fault, the market made them do it.
The university’s bosses are not going to stand with international students or students at residence. But, for our sake as much as theirs, the rest of us should. Holding back the rate hikes – for both domestics and internationals – is the first step in rolling back the cuts.
Anton Cu Unjieng is an Art History student and a member of the International Socialist Discussion Group that meets every Monday at UBC.