Equality of Opportunity, Equality of Means: An Argument for Low Tuition and the Student Strike

Read Jacob T. Levy’s take on this issue here.

Political philosophers have taken in recent years to distinguishing between “ideal theory” and “nonideal theory.” As I understand the distinction, the former has to do with the way we think that political institutions ought to be, were they to embody our preferred values perfectly. The latter pertains to the choices that we ought to make on specific issues of real-world political morality, given that our institutions are as they are—that is, far from ideal.

I opposed the university tuition hike by the (now defeated) Liberal government of Jean Charest for reasons of both ideal and non-ideal theory.

Beginning with the former, it has always seemed to me that accessible, and ideally free higher education is a worthwhile goal of liberal democratic political morality. We can either pay for higher education through tuition fees, or through progressive taxation, or through a combination of these sources. Now, as many proponents of the fee hike have observed, the share of costs paid for by taxation had the increase gone through would still have been more than 80%. Nonetheless, it would have represented a step away, rather than a step toward the ideal of a publicly funded university, and looking at examples from around the world (such as the UK), we must be wary of governments developing an appetite for increased tuition.

Why is taxation-funded rather than tuition-funded higher education a worthwhile goal for affluent societies such as our own to pursue? The answer has to do with what I take to be one of the central ethical commitments of liberal democracy, which is to aim for real equality of opportunity. Philosophers have argued endlessly about what that requirement entails, and about whether it is an adequate ideal for our societies. But at the most basic level, equality of opportunity has to do with ensuring to the greatest degree that we can through the tools of public policy that no citizen’s fate is determined by the accidents of his birth. That is, in a liberal democracy there ought to be no a priori limits placed upon one’s ability to dream big dreams or to have a fair shot at realizing them.

Now, there are many obstacles to achieving real equality of opportunity about which public policy can do very little. People are born into very different genetic, social and familial circumstances, and those circumstances will clearly have a harmful impact on the achievement of equal opportunity. Education is, however, a policy lever that we do have at our disposal. We can enact policies that make education more or less accessible, and the extent to which we choose to open doors rather than close them will determine whether education ends up being a counterweight to the myriad other forces that tend to worsen inequality.

Clearly, ensuring that access to universities is determined by talent and by willingness to work hard, rather than by financial means and family connections, will have a huge impact on whether we achieve something resembling real equality of opportunity or not. I for one would rather pay more taxes in order to ensure that all young Quebeckers have a chance to pursue a university education if they desire to do so, and if they have the talent and work ethic to excel, rather than paying what would probably be roughly the same amount of money to send my own kids to university in a system that charged high tuition. My children would not be disadvantaged by a system in which well-paid professionals like myself contribute to a common pool of resources from which all can draw. The children of less privileged people, however, will certainly be disadvantaged by a system in which I just look after my own.

Some commentators on the debates that we have been having in Quebec—who are just as committed as I am to the goal of achieving equality of educational opportunity—have argued that, given the other forces that are in place in Quebec society, lowering or eliminating up-front tuition fees would end up being a regressive move. They argue, not implausibly, that upper and middle-class people are more likely than are people from lower reaches of the socio-economic ladder to attend university. If university is free, that means that everyone’s taxes pay for it, including those of working people who are less likely to attend university, or to send their children to higher education.

That is indeed a risk, and it is a risk that might very well come to pass if we do not attack other obstacles to accessibility. In particular, Quebec has what is arguably the most regressively funded elementary and secondary school system in Canada. Private schools are funded here to the tune of 60% of total operating costs, which is just enough to make them attractive to the middle class, but not enough to make them truly accessible to the disadvantaged. The result is that the middle class massively defects from the public school system (20% of Quebec children attend private schools here, compared to about 6% in Ontario). The downstream effects of this disastrous funding model on university access are dramatic. By the time our young people finish high school, the combination of differential resources between the two systems and cohort effects (children are more likely to consider attending university if they are surrounded by other children who are also university bound) mean that decisions about whether or not to pursue higher education have already been made by circumstance.

Were we not to address these other sources of educational inequity, then it is possible that low tuition would in fact end up constituting a tax paid by the poor to the rich. But the conclusion that ought to be drawn from this is that we ought to tackle all of the obstacles to equal opportunity that are amenable to policy tools appropriate to a liberal democracy. These include both “downstream” obstacles to do with rising tuition (and other costs associated with attending university, which tend to get left out of the equation in these debates), and “upstream” obstacles relating to tuition.

Now, in introducing these remarks I wrote that there were both ideal and non-ideal reasons to oppose tuition hikes. Quebec’s massively unjust school system, which tends to inhibit demand for higher education on the part of people at the lower end of the economic ladder, might be taken to be a huge, nonideal reason to raise tuition. Indeed, it might be argued, as long as university attendance is mostly a middleand upper-class phenomenon, at least people from those social strata ought to pay their “fair share.”

I think we ought to resist this conclusion, for the following reasons.

First, attending (as we should) to real-world obstacles to equality of opportunity should not induce quietism. But second, there are other non-ideal factors which in my view also argue for keeping tuition low, or at the very least for deferring increases for the time being.

To begin with, it will not have escaped attention that the highest proportion of students in the strike movement came from the humanities and social sciences. These are precisely the sectors of Canadian universities that have been hardest hit by the reorganization of internal university financing in recent years. Departments are increasingly being expected to fend for themselves, to come up with “business plans” for new academic appointments, and so on. The days when “have” and “have-not” academic units were seen by university administrators as part of one big academic enterprise where different contributions were all appreciated without having to answer to a single model of “utility” are sadly gone, if they ever existed.

This means that the academic experience that students in the humanities and social sciences receive is not what it used to be. Resources are stretched to the breaking point and beyond, and this has an impact on the kind of education we are able to deliver to our students.

When students in these disciplines are told that they are going to have to pay more for their education, it is natural to expect that this request will come with a clear and transparent “business plan” indicating quite clearly how their money will translate into an improved learning environment. Such a plan has not been forthcoming, and in the absence of clear assurances that tuition increases will not simply contribute to a situation in which the rich departments get richer, it is difficult to blame the students in these disciplines for (at the very least) asking that the increase be put on the back burner until some assurances are obtained.

There are other, non-ideal considerations that pushed me toward adopting the anti-increase position. They have to do with the general sense that has been permeating Quebec society in recent years to the effect that, to put it mildly, the funds that are garnered by various levels of government through taxes are not being used as efficiently as they might. At the time of writing, the Charbonneau Commission is regaling Quebeckers with stories of corruption in the construction industry, stories that have a clear cash value as far as taxpayers are concerned. Indeed, public works and construction in the public sector costs the taxpayer more than they should because of an apparently endemic culture of bribes and kickbacks. It is entirely relevant to the present discussion that construction in the university sector has not been immune from allegations of incompetent management and of financial malfeasance.

There is also a growing sense that the very great riches that Quebeckers are fortunate enough to be sitting on, in the form of natural resources, are not being used for the greater good of the greatest number (as is the case in Norway). Rather, they are being exploited for short-term profit by extraction companies that are receiving sweetheart deals from the government.

In such circumstances, it is morally problematic to ask students to do their “fair share” by accepting an 82% increase in tuition over the next few years. Indeed, the question can at least be asked whether such an increase would even be needed were public finances and natural resources shepherded more prudently by our government. At the very least, the government should demonstrate that it is doing the most that it can with the money it collects from taxpayers, and with the riches that are our collective endowment, before it suggests a tuition fee increase.

So I opposed the increase because I believe, in general, that doing as much as we can to democratize access to higher education is a condition for the achievement of a society marked by real equality of opportunity. I also opposed the increase because, in the present circumstances, the use of money both inside the university sector and in the broader society makes the appeal to students to pay more morally problematic.

Opposing the increase in fees does not in and of itself imply supporting the strike. After all, according to some commentators, the right to strike does not apply to students, who can at best be seen as taking part in a boycott. A strike is a collective action taken on the basis of a recognized collective decision-making body that binds all members of the collective, including those who voted not to strike. A boycott is a convergence of individual actions that does not bind those who did not choose to boycott.

Do students have the right to strike, as opposed to simply engaging in a boycott? That question can be viewed as a purely legal one. And there is controversy among Quebec jurists as to whether the laws that protect the right to strike of workers also apply to students.

But there is also a question of political morality here, and on that question I have reached the conclusion that student associations should have the right to engage in collective actions such as strikes. It is hard to see why the moral grounds that justify the right to strike of workers fail to apply to students. Students are in an economically precarious situation, not by virtue of their status as wage labourers, but as individuals who have deferred gainful employment in order to acquire skills that are necessary for a modern economy and for the general cultural well-being of society. Modern universities and governments are at pains to remind us that universities have among their primary function the training of a modern workforce that suits the needs of a new economy. Thus, just like workers, students place themselves in an economically precarious and vulnerable position, but perform a function that is central to economic success. Just like workers, the only way in which they can offset that vulnerability is by acting together.

Students not only perform functions that correspond to the needs of the marketplace. Through the research in which they engage, they are also cultural workers who contribute greatly to the ethical and cultural backbone of society. They do so very often in conditions of material hardship. Many of them do so without any real prospect that the important academic work they perform—to ensure that our cultural and intellectual heritage will continue to resonate through the ages—will lead to their securing gainful employment.

Thus, in ways that are sufficiently analogous to workers, students perform socially and economically important tasks in conditions of insecurity and vulnerability. In these conditions, it does not seem incongruous to argue that if a right to strike exists, then students should be able to claim it.

Daniel Weinstock is a Professor of Law at McGill University. Previously, he was a professor in the Department of Philosophy at the Université de Montréal.