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Margin Notes

Is a university education a right?

Or is it more of a privilege? Have your say...


In an interesting blog post yesterday in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Ohio State University English Professor Frank Donoghue addresses what I believe is the crux of the matter regarding a university education: is it a right, i.e., a social entitlement; or is it a privilege and not, therefore, a government’s responsibility?

Whichever way you answer that question, it has enormous policy implications.

Students’ groups, like the Canadian Federation of Students, fall firmly in the “education is a right” category. The CFS even has a campaign with that very title.

But what does that right entitle you to, exactly? Should we expect a free education, open to all, like in the K-12 system?

To be fair, that’s not what the CFS is advocating. Their main goal, it appears, is to improve access by compelling governments to reduce tuition fees and improve the grants and loans system.

In that, I don’t think they’d find too much opposition, in general, from university administrators and higher-ed experts. I have heard many a university president proclaim – sincerely, I believe – that every individual who has the aptitude and the desire should not be barred from attending university simply because they lack the financial means. Ah, but how does one “operationalize” that noble sentiment? Aye, there’s the rub…

I’m personally uncomfortable proclaiming that access to postsecondary education is an absolute right, equal to, say, Canadians’ right to health care. Conversely, I would strongly dispute, and in much more emphatic terms, the notion that the government has no responsibility to support or promote higher education. A highly educated workforce is essential to a healthy and prosperous society and governments have an important role to play in ensuring that goal.

But, what should the extent of that role be? Another tough question. Governments are pulled in many directions, with competing priorities, and their fiscal capacities are currently very strained, with many difficult decisions ahead.

I’d love to hear readers’ thoughts on this. Where do you fall on the right/privilege spectrum?

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Carson / December 1, 2010 at 13:10

    Actually the CFS is advocating free education for all. Their accessibility policy, available on their websites, states clearly that they support “the elimination of tuition and other incidental user fees.”

  2. Nora Loreto / December 1, 2010 at 13:25

    This won’t shock anyone who knows who I am, but I’m firmly on the ‘right’ side of this debate. All Canadians should have the right to access higher education if they are qualified and willing. In absence of such a strong ideal driving PSE policy, access becomes segmented by class and other forms marginalization that exist within Canadian society. Indeed, when we limit access to a social program like education, the effect is not equally felt among the class/race/gender/ability segments of our society. In absence of some perfect way to mitigate this reality, declaring education to be a right is simply an accessible way for students to express their belief that PSE should be universally accessible to all qualified students.

    Leo, you’ve posed a few separate questions that I don’t necessarily believe to be driven by the theoretical right vs. privilege question you set out to address. Regardless of the ideological belief of any government, there are more than enough arguments for why the government has a role to play in funding PSE to a greater extent than they are now. The current funding arrangement must be looked at through an historical lens: there is less money in real dollars funding more students than ever before. The result: a massive amount of money owed to the federal and provincial governments by people who statistically have less disposable income and a sharp decline in the quality of education that’s delivered. Even staunch fiscal conservatives who believe that education is for a privileged few should be able to see that the impending economic crisis that will hit Canada as more and more young people are expected to pay greater sums of money (or take on debt) to pay for education, could be mitigated or averted by investing more money into higher education.

  3. Nora Loreto / December 1, 2010 at 13:28

    Actually Carson, the CFS founding principle is the progressive elimination of user fees that pose a barrier to higher education, but nowhere in their lobby documents/submission to Finance committees or the stated goals of the Education is a Right campaign are governments called on to eliminate fees. The principles on which the organization is based can be expressed in a variety of ways in public debates and lobby efforts and so, Leo is correct in his characterization of the current campaign.

  4. Carson / December 1, 2010 at 13:46

    Nora, I don’t deny that the current campaign doesn’t mention the elimination of tuition and other user fees, but the elimination of tuition is official CFS policy.

  5. Andrew / December 1, 2010 at 16:14


    I was wondering whether you would be willing to clarify what you mean by education as a right, per se. I’ve never really gotten the feeling that people using the argument consider the implications of defining PSE as a right, open to all persons. It always seemed like the term “right” was flung around in a manner similar to “green” and “accessible” – words often used to convey feelings bu not necessarily meaning. That said, I’m more than willing to be disabused of that notion by a strong argument.

    – This will be somewhat long, so bullet-points are at the bottom. –

    My first issue with “education as a right” is somewhat practical: If a free education were to becoma a right, one which each and every Canadian would necessarily be able to claim, then it is not unreasonable to see the rolls of Canadian university students increase by a factor of between five and ten. After all, there are certainly many people in Canada who would, given the chance, return to university: those interested in changing the direction of their undergraduate studies; those interested in upgrading their qualifications to a new level (MA, Phd, etc.); those interested in education purely as a recreational exercise; those adults who never attended/completed university; and those who would have been considered under-qualified under the old PSE regime.

    This breeds two problems, to my ken.

    The first has to do with standards in PSE.

    After all, if education is indeed a right, one cannot reasonably prevent someone from attending university because their marks are insufficient, or indeed for any reason apart from obstructiveness; that’s not how rights work in this country. One never knows, after all, whether a particular student’s poor performance was connected to mental limitations or to insuficient effort. On the one hand, you can’t deny someone their rights out of no fault of their own; on the other hand, if education is indeed a right, and assuming a student’s lack of qualification is indeed their own fault, what precedent would it set for them to be denied their “rights” on the grounds of expediency? Strictly speaking, healthcare isn’t even a right in Canada, and yet we would never imagine denying treatment to smokers, binge-drinkers or any others whose own actions imperilled their health.

    So then, the question becomes, how does the Canadian PSE system deal with the introduction of people totally unqualified to participate in higher education, but to whom it cannot refuse admittance? Leave aside ballooning class-sizes and warped bell-curves for a minute; imagine the effect that introducing thousands of unqualified students to PSE would have on the pedagogic process.

    The second problem is purely one of cost: Across the country, there are probably, give or take, one million or so PSE students right now. Average tuition is probably something in the area of $3,000 across the country. Thus, eliminating the cost of tuition would result in an increase in government expenditures of around $3 billion – a cost that rises well in excess of the rate of inflation.

    Now, imagine the effect of making tuition free AND allowing attendance to all comers. Consolidated education expenditures by federal and provincial governments are something like $128 Bn, and PSE spending accounts for probably a third of this when high-school is subbed out. All that said, and when both the cost of free tuition and the increased attendance are factored in, it looks like the pricetag for education as a “right” is somewhere in the range of fifty billion to one hundred billion dollars, leaving aside the initial capital investment needed to actually build the facilities to house all the new students.

    From whence is that money to appear? Where are the governments to get an additional 10% to 20% of the consolidated federal and provincial revenues? It seems unlikely that “making the rich pay their fair share” and/or “taxing corporations” would cover this tab.

    Moving onto a completely separate tac for a moment, I’d be curious to hear your opinion of the impact that declaring education to be a right would have on Canada’s international student population. After all, all rights granted to Canadian citizens are also necessarily granted to non-citizens on Canadian soil. So, would you accept the principle that access to PSE would be provided to all comers, citizen and not, without cost, and without regard to qualification? If so, I would be interested to see you explain the budgetary implications of this policy; if not, I would be interested to hear how you see international students being structured into the new model – how much would they have to pay, and how many would be allowed in – given that both physical space and financial resources will be at a premium.

    There are many, many other issues to do with making education a right, and I would be interested in hearing your thoughts, but I have already run on too long here.

    Oh -I just remembered that I promised bullet-points. Here they are:
    A) If PSE becomes a right, how do you keep the stupid and the lazy out of university, bearing in mind that rights do not accept of minimum qualifications?

    B) If you don’t exclude them, how do you accommodate them into the pedagogical model? What does this do to the educational experience of average-and-above students (those presently attending university).

    C) Who would pay for the cost associated with this new system? What do you imagine those costs to be, given current costs?

    D) How would you see the PSE-as-right situation impact international students? Would they share in this right? If not, why not? Also: if not, how would they fit into the new system, given the increased stain on space and resources?

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