Access to education is universally recognised as a fundamental right and is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. States have recognised that the primary intention of an education is to “enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society”, and to help form fully functioning citizens with the minimal education needed in order to secure livable employment and to be literate participants in civic life. Studies have also found that well educated citizens are not only more likely to gain dignified employment but are also more likely to be involved in supporting other common goods such as gender equality, climate action and social inclusion.
While there was a time when people in Canada could assume the role of fully functioning citizen following secondary education alone, that time has ended. In a developed country like Canada, there is widespread agreement that at least 2-4 years of post-secondary education are necessary.
If we accept that post-secondary education is a necessary stage in the creation of a fully formed citizen, then it stands to reason that post-secondary education must be universally accessible. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Canada, where access to post-secondary education is increasingly dependent upon a potential student’s ability to pay.
Tuition fees represent a significant cost, particularly for students from equity-seeking groups. Studies have shown that rising tuition fees are correlated with increasing student debt loads, and comparatively lower enrolment of lower-income students.
The Green Party of Canada has said that universal access to quality post-secondary education and skills training is a right, not a privilege, as it is in many developed countries. We have called for college and university tuition to be free for all Canadian students and to forgive the portion of existing student debt that is held by the federal government. Universal post-secondary education would be financed by redirecting existing spending on bursaries, tuition tax credits, saved costs of administering the student loan system, and the hundreds of millions of dollars of student loan defaults written off every year.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put many students, already in a precarious economic position, into potential crisis. The summer student job market has dried up, as have many of the minimum wage service jobs that employ students. If they do not work during the school year, many students will not be eligible for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and risk falling through the cracks of the system being put in place. Some students, facing a loss of income, will be forced to add more debt to afford tuition. It will also create a tremendous amount of housing insecurity.
Students must have access to the CERB. In addition to expanding CERB eligibility, the government should also:
- make the upcoming academic year tuition-free for all post-secondary students, and
- institute loan forgiveness of the federal portion of student debt for the current and upcoming academic years
with a view to moving towards a permanent tuition-free and loan-free model as quickly as possible.