Low cost, or even free, university tuition is an attainable goal

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opinion_voice1.jpgSolidarity Halifax Student Caucus member Omri Haiven comments on politicians’ apathy toward affordable education.

Originally published in The Coast’s Voice of the City column on September 12, 2013.

For the price of our new convention center, Nova Scotians could be enjoying free education from primary school right up to college and university. It’s that simple, and yet the idea of universal education, much like universal health care before it, has been labeled impossible by the powers that be.

What then, is so radical about not burdening future generations with debt just as they’re starting out in their lives? With students in Nova Scotia graduating with an average debt-load of $35,000, they are on the mark when they call the cost of getting an education a “debt sentence.”Add to this the fact that our province currently has an 18 percent youth unemployment rate, and you have a bleak future staring back at most of our graduates.

A provincial election is now upon us and I can already hear the media and politicians getting ready to cluck their tongues at us students for our lack of “engagement” and for our inability to pay attention to anything besides our iPhones and whatever the hell twerking is.

Take, for example, the first sentence that greets young people when they visit the Elections Nova Scotia webpage for students: “If you’ve ever watched TV shows like Survivor you already have an idea of how voting works. The difference in a Nova Scotian election is that voters are not voting anyone off the island, you’re voting for the person or party you want to represent you in government.”

Well thanks a lot for that Elections Nova Scotia! I wasn’t gonna vote but now that you’ve compared our elections to an outdated source of entertainment that pits self-obsessed celebrity wannabees against one another through increasingly ridiculous challenges, I now understand why this is my civic duty!

Aside from their deeply patronizing attitudes towards students, none of the three major political parties has addressed the issue of higher education in any serious way during the run up to this election, so we must ask: is there a problem with student apathy or is it the politicians who are apathetic to student issues?

Even without calling for universally free post-secondary education, our prospective governments could easily provide 100 percent of the provincial portion of student loans as up front grants, without spending any new money. Students have been calling on governments to make this cost-neutral move for years and yet politicians continue to ignore our demands. Why is this?

Having worked on student issues over several years, I have attended many meetings with government, hosted and been part of numerous events where students expressed their predicament to politicians, and I’ve marched in the streets with thousands of others to call on government to provide adequate funding for post-secondary education. All of these events featured highly engaged students who were committed to changing a situation that they saw as unjust. Barely any of these events saw politicians alter their course of action or even respond to student’s earnest demands.

We have a problem with politician apathy in this province and we can’t trust them to fix it on their own.

Eighty-three percent of Nova Scotians support reducing tuition fees while nearly 60 percent already agree with paying higher taxes to make it happen. This number increases significantly among low-wage earners, 70 percent of whom would be willing to pay higher taxes to make post-secondary education more affordable. Why would low-income earners be willing to pay more taxes to make education affordable? Because tuition fees are already a tax for them—tuition fees are a tax on this province’s most vulnerable populations.

If Nova Scotia is truly committed to calling itself Canada’s University Capital then we have a lot of work to do. It is reprehensible to open up our universities to youth from around the world and from the rest of the country, milk them dry while they’re living here and then leave them to wander off in search of work elsewhere. It is no less heartbreaking to see young people in this province unable to afford the schooling they desire or, having gone into debt, forced out of the province to look for work.

Let’s demand better from our politicians and let’s make sure they stay accountable to their promises. After all, it’s not up to them how we spend our budgets—we are the ones who decide our priorities.

Note: Articles published by Solidarity Halifax members do not necessarily reflect positions held by the organization.