On Campus

What right to an education?

Free higher education for all is not only inefficient, but also regressive

Go to any student protest and you’re likely to hear something along the lines of “Education is a right,” often coupled with “We will not give up the fight.” The implication is clear, receiving a post-secondary education is an entitlement that every individual has for no other reason than the simple fact that they exist. The government (federal or provincial — no one is really sure) by not subsidizing it in its fullest is, apparently, violating our human rights. I suspect it is only a matter of time before someone publicly accuses the government of crimes against humanity.

Once something has entered into the rights discourse, arguing against it becomes a sort of blasphemy. Some rights advocates, the true believers that they are, accept the right as a given and are often clueless as to how to defend their favoured interests.

For example, when the York Federation of Students cancelled a debate to be held by the debating society on the morality of abortion, spokesperson Kelly Holloway argued that the Supreme Court has ruled abortion to be a women’s right and “that’s good enough for me.” Apart from being wholly bizarre such deference to a state institution for a self-proclaimed progressive like Holloway, is illustrative of the deification of human rights.

This deification is evident in the Canadian Federation of Students’ Declaration of Students Rights which they take to be “undeniable” to “all students globally” and include among other things, the right to “an accessible, high quality education at all levels.”

In their policy document, the CFS defines an accessible education as one that “should allow the individual student to pursue the education of her choice.” Referring to the “education of her choice” is to omit the important caveat of merit, which is to say they mean it when proclaiming education is a right.

Cordoning off certain types of education only for those suited to it, would be to recognize that, say university, is a privilege reserved for those with certain intellectual capabilities. Never mind that virtually no one denies the fact that if you got the grades, you get to go even if this requires us to subsidize you. But this isn’t enough for our student advocates. Nope, you want to go, you get to go simply because you breathe.

As much as this might make us feel good, there is no way to justify this conception of rights without appealing to contemporary moral intuition, the musings of political philosophers who have picked rights out of the air, or to the existence of some supernatural being.

However, rights are nothing more than a political mechanism to provide an extra degree of protection for socially valuable interests, either through a bill or charter of rights, or through common law convention. Governments respect rights because of the value they provide to citizens (they improve our lives) and because of their value to society (say to promote the stability of a liberal democracy).

Choosing which interests to protect is the result of the educative process characteristic of social and political development, and their protection is often weighed against their cost. For instance, the right to vote comes with the significant financial costs associated with running an election, but it is a cost we have deemed worthwhile, but not so worthwhile that we hold elections every year, or referenda on every imaginable topic. To do so would be to divert resources away from other governmental obligations. Plainly speaking, rights have to be justified to deserve special protection, and the degree they are to be protected is often a matter of available resources.

When was the last time someone gave an articulate reason why post-secondary education should be free? Sure, lip service is often paid to the benefits of an educated populace to society, but the intimation remains the same, charging for school is immoral. And one might add, having minimum entrance requirements is also immoral, perhaps doubly so. We can always subsidize education, but you can’t subsidize natural talents.

In no country, however, where higher education is fully subsidized have entrance requirements disappeared. In fact, they might even be higher to ensure state funds are spent on those with the greatest chance of success, and because to subsidize everyone regardless of personal talent and capabilities would require the investment of the sort that would cripple the state’s ability to maneouver in other areas of responsibility. So higher education, even where it is free, remains a privilege.

Full subsidization is neither efficient or progressive. It is not efficient in that it requires an enormous level of resources to subsidize an education that many can afford, and so funds would be best served elsewhere. It is not progressive because it provides the same subsidy for those from well-off backgrounds as it does for those from poorer backgrounds. It is by definition regressive. Can someone please explain to me why this is fair? Or exactly why governments should use resources in this way?

Free education advocates might point to state subsidization for primary and secondary school. The state is obligated, most would agree, to not only provide an education for children but to compel parents to send their children to school. It is not in the interests of the rights of the child per se, but in the interests of the adult he/she will become. In order for adults to exercise their autonomy and make appropriate choices, it is important that they be endowed with a minimal level of education so that they may function in a modern economy and participate in a liberal democracy.

But this cannot be true of higher education, because not only can we not compel adults to go, but that the function of lower levels of education is more basic, than the often career oriented aspects of post-secondary education. If one could credibly argue, in a country where upwards of 40 per cent of the 18-24 cohort goes to university, that students are not being suitably prepared to function in society the focus should be on primary and secondary education. To argue that higher education is an entitlement is only marginally different than arguing if I want to be a doctor than I have the right to be.

Call me an elitist but a higher education is not a right, and nor should it be.

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