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?