The continuing student strike in Quebec against a tuition hike, recently revised by the government to consist of an increase of $254 a year for 7 years ($1,778 thanks to inflation) has raged on over the past several months, and the strikers tend to defend their demand by proclaiming that “education is a right!” Most of those who don’t agree with the strikers have fallen into the very clever rhetorical trap of contending that education, at least in this sphere, is a privilege. Here is why the slogan is not only flawed, but almost completely irrelevant to the debate upon closer examination.
Where do we recognize education as a right to begin with? A nice place to look to would be Article 26 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaims, “Everyone has the right to education.” On the subject of higher education the UN notes, “higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit,” an idea I’ll come back to later.
Going back to the slogan however, my problem is that even if you consider education at all levels to be a basic human right, this does not make the idea of tuition objectionable in any way. Things that we consider “rights” are in no way unlimited, and society often limits rights for purposes democratic majorities decide to find acceptable. Let’s take freedom of speech, for example. Most of the developed world restricts speech that can be defined as “hate speech”. The United States here is an outlier, defining such sanctionable speech more narrowly than other nations, but the point stands; free speech isn’t unlimited. By that same token, even at the level of the campus of McGill University, students have found it socially acceptable and useful to limit free speech via the Equity Policy. Whether or not this specific policy is justified in its current form is a topic for another post; the point is that the lack of unlimited access to a right does not mean the right is not recognized.
So to say that a tuition increase that simply brings the level of tuition to the same real-dollar amount that it was when the Quebec university system was established is equivalent to the denial of a human right is dubious at best. But even if you presume that any impediment to access results in the right to education being denied, this would lead to the logical conclusion that… the entire university system is a human rights violation.
What I mean by that is this; implicit in the absolutist, anti hike (and anti tuition) argument the strikers make is the idea that if even a single person decides not to go to university for cost reasons, the system is unjust. The flipside of this is that in the status quo, people are rejected from university on a regular basis for academic reasons and otherwise. It is theoretically possibly to apply to every university and be denied admission to each one. Again, we come back to the issue of denial of access. The fact that access to a right is not unlimited, be it freedom of speech or university education, does not mean the right is denied or not recognized.
To wrap up, let’s come back to the idea of the UN’s declaration, that “higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.”I agree with this, and I think most reasonable people do as well. Where the reasonable disagree is what satisfies these criteria. In the case of Quebec, the tuition increase is accompanied by a comparable increase in funds to the bursary program, and the most recent government offer has increased the ease of loan repayment, one of the many aspects of the American loan system that is in dire need of fixing. However, it is clear that access can exist in the same universe as a reasonable tuition. This is where Canada passes the accessibility test and America fails.