20 September 2011

The NDP and Regressive Social Policy: education #nlpoli

those who are interested in education policy and the current election campaign will be fascinated by a chunk of one conversation that broke out on Twitter Sunday. 

Two of the participants were Mark Watton, former Liberal candidate in the Humber West by-election earlier this year and Brad Evoy, a New Democratic Party supporter and former vice president (academic0 of the Grenfell campus Student Union in Corner Brook.

They were discussing NDP policy that would make post-secondary education in Newfoundland and Labrador free to any students.

This is an edited version of the conversation, but one that tries to preserves both the flow of the exchange and the thrust of Evoy’s position.  Evoy starts off on accessibility and then morphs into a wider argument:.

Watton:  Just because something costs money, doesn't mean it is inaccessible. …a viable investment i.e. one which individuals, as well as the state, can make.

Evoy:  That's mighty well and easy for you to say, Mr. Watton, but it is not so for many NLers.

Watton:  on what basis do you make that statement?

Evoy:  Again, individual investment should not prohibit what is best for our common good. …Aside from knowing those who suffer under debt loads and turn away from PSE due to cost? … So there is some with the ability to be affluent, that doesn't mean all can….Question now, would you even dare suggest the same for Primary and Secondary Education… As in our society some level of PSE is now as needed just as well as those, in many fields…would it not be better to remove personal wealth from the equation all together? … Is it not more equitable for students to be judged on their merit and pay tax when…...they are all established well enough to do so? That's the idea here….Some form of PSE is quickly becoming an employment baseline...... in many professions. We require skilled persons in our economy.

Watton:  so if something is an employment baseline the state should pay for it for everyone?

Evoy:  Aren't we already doing so from the period when high school was exactly that? …And, again, it's a baseline for many professions and some won't have the academics…

Free or low tuition has been a popular idea for decades.  The arguments in favour f it usually centre on accessibility for people from lower income families.

The only problem for people who make accessibility their foundation is that there isn’t any substantial evidence to support the claim about accessibility and free tuition.

Take a recent study from Ireland as typical.  Kevin Denny of the Institute for Fiscal Studies released a paper in may that looked at the impact of the Irish government policy that wiped out tuition fees in 1996. His conclusion is that eliminating tuition fees had no effect on university attendance by students from lower income families.

What did it do?

The only obvious effect of the policy was to provide a windfall gain to middle-class parents who no longer had to pay fees. [p. 14]

In a footnote Denny indicates there is some reason to believe that these families wound up shipping their children to private schools.  that would likely have had the effect of improving their academic performance which further disadvantaged children from lower income families in the competition to enter university.

Overall, while the numbers of students from low incomes went up after 1996, so too did the number of students from other  family income levels.  The effect was such that the proportions of students in university did not change significantly for the better with the elimination of tuition fees.

Flip back up to Evoy’s comments for a second and look at this bit:

would it not be better to remove personal wealth from the equation all together? … Is it not more equitable for students to be judged on their merit and pay tax when…...they are all established well enough to do so?

The effect of free tuition is the opposite, according to Denny.  It doesn’t take personal wealth out of the equation.  Rather, free tuition delivers a windfall to those who could already afford to send their children to university or who can afford it moreso than those on low incomes.

Incidentally, you can find similar conclusions to Denny’s work in other studies.  A 1990 paper by Benjamin Levin titled  “Tuition fees and university accessibility” noted that university students in Canada tended to be from families where one or both parents had university degrees.  University graduates earned, on average considerably more than non-graduates.  As such, free tuition would tend to provide a disproportionate advantage to those who were better able to pay for education anyway.

That’s without considering that the cost of a university education in this province is already unconnected to the actual cost of the education.  This is especially true in medicine and the other professions where incomes are higher and the ability to repay substantial loans would be much better than say a typical Arts graduate. 

And the other thing these studies have in common is that they found that other factors  - besides tuition fees - affect access to post-secondary education.

If accessibility is the goal, there are other ways to deal with it.  Levin argued that targeted programs were a better way to go.  Means tested grants, for example, or changing the ratio of student loans and grants based on student financial circumstances would help to ensure that students from low income families would not be disadvantaged because of fees.  In the professions, governments can do more of what they do now with a variety of cash incentives as well as provide means-tested grants.

What’s most interesting about the New Democrats and free tuition is the ease with which they have adopted what is essentially a regressive social policy. 

While New Democrats like Evoy talk about accessibility and how the party represents “ordinary” Canadians,  their solution is a blunt tax cut or subsidy approach that appears to be better suited to Conservatives. That’s especially striking in the case of free university tuition where research shows that eliminating fees doesn’t improve accessibility. 

It does, however, provide financial advantage to people who are already better able to pay tuition or people who would be better able to pay in their future career.

The NDP.

Not Tommy Douglas’ socially progressive party any more.

- srbp -


rod said...

Hey Ed,

You've pointed out what is wrong. I'd like to hear your suggestions on what you think is right. I'm not being saucy, just curious.

Edward Hollett said...

Stand by. There are other shoes from the closet waiting to drop. I started the series on 15 ideas. Well, this is an area I've been spurred to dig into more deeply and I've got some new ones.

rod said...

You should put your hat in the ring.
This province needs a pragmatic approach. But the people don't like to hear the truth, that's the sad part. Remember what happened to Joe Clark when John Crosbie tabled his budget. They got the boot because of a proposed increase in gas taxes. And Pierre got elected and put the taxes up gradually.. pretty slick eh?
If you get a minute, give a listen to Congressman Roy Paul from Texas. He makes some compelling arguments.

Edward Hollett said...

You mean Ron Paul?

rod said...

Sorry, Ron Paul it is.
I think the military industrial complex has reason to be concerned about this man.

Brad Evoy said...

Hey Ed,

Love the blog and figured you'd take a crack at this. But there are some fundamental issues with what you've put forward here, or rather, with how you've framed it.

Firstly, you've largely painted a picture that Ireland's system and our own are completely comparable. I would note, however, that this is not the case. Unlike here currently or elsewhere in Canada, Ireland had a robust system of grants which covered much more than simply tuition, but other expenses as well. Even the NDP's proposed grants cannot go that far.

While I would argue even very modest change positively in the Irish system following the removal of fees is something that - even if it is below this particular economist's threshold for usefulness - is of benefit.

Further, in your look at this issue, you've not taken post-graduation debt and the detriment it has on the economy into the equation - this was a part of my arguement as well.

Equally, you wrongly focus solely here on University demographics, as per your use of Dr. Levin's paper. When I say Post-Secondary, I am also speaking of the college system of CNA. The demographics mentioned there give a view as to the average student, perhaps when the paper was written, but there are still many outside of that range. I, myself, am one of those students. However, seeing as I study in Dr. Levin's department, I'll have to ask him how he feels on the matter, at some point.

On another point, you mention, that this solution is equal to a tax cut or subsidy, when this is the exact opposite of what would be occuring here. Sure, you're making your vision of this easier for the reader to digest, but it is inaccurate.

Also, I will state that these views of mine are longheld ones and come from a time long before I paired my political views with that of the NDP. I was a Liberal for a short period, in fact,and prior stayed fererently non-partisan, all the while I held the same views.

The NDP, mind you, have taken up the Canadian Federation of Students call for a more generous grants program with the hope this will eventually move to a tuition free situation.

Finally, I would note the use of the term 'free tuition' is - while again, easy to digest - inaccurate by all who use it. Nothing is free, this idea is a reshuffling of our social priorities.

Edward Hollett said...

Thanks for the comment, Brad.

For starters, there is no reason to believe that the Irish university system and the Irish people generally behave so radically different from people here that the findings of that study are useless when discussing the same policy of free tuition here.

As I noted the Irish study basically comes to the same conclusion as other studies from other places and other times (like here in Cda). Your claim for exceptionalism doesn't seem to hold up.

In the irish example, you then seem to miss the point entirely: the free tuition did not improve access for low SES students relative to other students. overall, the ratios etc stayed the same.

On the impact of debt, feel free to actually explain what you mean.

Likewise, you can also explain how the demographics of a university focused paper changes radically if you add CNA to the mix. Would free tuition at CONA dramatically change access for students compared to say poor educational performance coming out of the school system? My bet is that poor high school performance is a bigger barrier to access and success.

Your partisan track record is irrelevant, but thanks for sharing.

As for "Free tuition is" I stick with the construction. My point is that it isn't free. My point is also that the NDP/CFS policy isn't socially progressive policy. It produces a disproportionate benefit to people who don't need it. The idea is an old CFS chestnut but that doesn't make it right or wrong.

Feel free to dispute those contentions at any point, rather than tossing out what is, at best, marginalia (your partisan record) or unsupported claims (e.g. Ireland is soo different).

A good discussion is always welcome. And if Dr. Levin wants to weigh in, then the more the merrier.

Mark said...

15 years ago my CFS local was advocating for free tuition. I thought it was a gret idea. Marched on the Hill. Threw macaroni. Etc.

Then it donned on me that of all the costs I incurred to go to school (transportation, books, accommodation, living expenses) tuition was actually the least of the four. For many of my classmates, it was the only thing they had to pay for. I wasn't that lucky.

Measures that the government took over the next few years, i.e. a policy of lower interest rates, an extension of the interest-free period for repayment, and access to other sources of assistance (scholarships, enhanced loans and grants) did more to level the playing field than the elimination of tuition fees ever would.

Like most of my classmates, I graduated with a gigantic debt. It took me years to pay it off. but I did. And the money I spent on my education was (for the most part) well worth it.

I absolutely agree with supporting students in all sorts of ways, but making tuition free isn't one of them.

For example, the tuition freeze in NL has reduced the cost of education for many, but the simultaneous escalation in housing costs has made that savings almost meaningless for rural Newfoundlanders who move to St. John's. What's the point of saving $3000 in tuition, only to be dinged an extra $3000 in rent?

Brad Evoy said...

Hi Ed,

Thanks for the response to my response.

On Ireland, it's not a matter in my mind that it is so different, but rather that the policies which precede tuition elimination are, in fact, very different. The comparative difference to Newfoundland and Labrador's students if tuition was eliminated I believe would be greater, as we do not nor have any foreseeable plans to make a system as the Irish had prior to the establishment of their elimination of tuition. In short, if we're at different starting points, I'm not sure the data will reflect the same outcomes and levels of change for low SES students. If Ireland had been using a similar financial aid system to that which we have now, one could say with certainty that the data would indeed play out similarly.

As for debt, one of the large problems - even for students now - under current loan-based financial aid relief is that the debt accrued through loans of all sorts tends to put them in a less economically competitive position even if - in the long term - they have a high rate of employment. This would affect low SES students who were successful within PSE and negatively impact their standing economically, post-graduation greatly. This is also a part of the larger concern for proponents of tuition elimination.

Equally, while you might cite that in the long term their higher rate of employment will allow them to eventually pay off these debts, this varies greatly between fields.

Well, I mention CNA as your argument skews clearly towards University education, leaving aside statistics for colleges, their graduates average earnings and the place of those graduates within the job market. It's not the paper at issue, rather that when considering Post-Secondary Education in the province, we need to provide evidence from both to be fair to the mechanics of our system.

And I bring up my partisan past, only as my statements were being painted purely as NDP partisanship in the initial post. I merely wished to clarify that no matter what the party sticks its post to, this is where I stand, personally.

In any case, thanks for giving me a chance to have at this and I'm sure we'll be talking about this again.

All the best.

Edward Hollett said...

Thanks again, Brad for commenting.

What's not clear from your comments is why the situation in NL at the moment is so dramatically different from the rest of Canada and from Ireland that we would not see the benefit of free tuition accruing to those who don't need free tuition to gain a post-secondary education.

With respect to debt, again, you'll have to explain how a debt load makes an individual uncompetitive in the job market. The connection isn't obvious for CNA grads and I don't think you'll have much success convincing anyone that newly minted doctors or engineers or MUN MBA or BComm is somehow going to go to the back of the line for work because he or she has student loans.

I've used university info because it is easiest to find. On the face of it, though, I do not see the connection you are drawing between debt and uncompetitiveness in the job market. Nor is your argument on clear on why tuition would be more of an obstacle to entering CNA than academic performance in high school.

I take your point on the partisan past and my apologies if I misunderstood that before. I only mentioned it initially since i took your comments to be generally typical of CFS/NDP supporters of free tuition. I don't think you are atypical and that's all i meant by it.

If there is an issue with tuition barring access for some people, then I believe a targeted government program would be preferable than creating a benefit for people who don't need it.

Edward Hollett said...


You highlight another aspect of the issue.

What we haven't touched on yet, of course is the point Levin made in 1990 about the extent of government subsidy of university education in Canada already. I don't think much has changed in the intervening two decades.

I know plenty of people who graduated in the 1980s who had staggering debt loads. It's relative. The education enabled them to obtain better paying jobs that allowed them to handle the debt loads in most cases, I'd venture.

To get right at it, though, gentlemen, I think PSE is the wrong place for this emphasis. if we want to improve educational outcomes for people we've got to start much earlier. Our current system is streaming people out of PSE before they ever get to think about tuition, free or not.

Take a look at the high school grad numbers for Eastern district, rural versus urban. CBC radio highlighted it a couple of Decembers ago.

I agree, Brad, that education is a key to individual and collective success. I really think we need to shift our focus - as a province - onto the high school system and below.

At the PSE level, let the tuition more closely reflect the market value of their degree or diploma. These are things I plan to explore a bit further here.

Liam said...

Ed (et al.)

I look at higher education costs in the exact same way I look at access to universal, “free”, single-payer health care. It's something that should be paid for by the taxpayer and the state. In other words, education from K-12 and onwards should be considered a social right, and not a personal cost downloaded to the student. Suggesting that we instead look at primary, secondary or early childhood is classic pretending-that-governments-can’t-do-multiple-things-at-once. I think any proposal to tinker with loan/debt ratios depending on the income of the student, or partial debt forgiveness, or tinkering with interest rates on loan repayment, or relying on alumni donations and scholarships, is so much foolishness. Why not spend the extra $70-$100 million per year and wipe out tuition costs to students?

Because it’s a subsidy for the middle class? Great - they can use the help too.

Because it’s a subsidy for the rich? Well, the Denny study seems to suggest that the very existence of tuition is a "financial and psychological barrier" to quote the Denny paper. Ed, you also implicitly admit this when you say "...while the numbers of students from low incomes went up after 1996, so too did the number of students from other family income levels." Yep. That’s a good thing, and it helps the argument of people like me, because the goal should be to eliminate financial barriers and hindrances to PSE for everyone, whether they can independently afford to overcome such barriers or not.

Because it’s a subsidy for students from other provinces (as you’ve stated previously, Ed)? If that’s the problem, charge students from outside the province a (different) tuition rate like Quebec does. Or, don’t do that, and a “race to the top” meritocratic scenario will develop where a low or no tuition policy attracts so many students that local universities and colleges pick from the best and brightest minds, which is one reason why German state universities are so competitive.

If the worry is that we’re just throwing money away, or that tuition should be closer to “market value”, then you don’t believe education is a social right. If that’s the case, then it totally makes sense that you could be thinking the twilight zone-esque notion that universality is regressive. Universalizing a policy nearly always creates greater equality. If you twin universal benefits (such as a 'no-tuition' policy) with making taxation more progressive or implementing other wealth redistribution schemes, then the problem of regressivity is done away with since the higher-income groups are still paying their proportionate share for the cost of a given policy through taxes.

Means testing is also great if you trust governments enough to ensure that certain standards of how such means will be tested will remain constant. I don’t.

Edward Hollett said...


For starters, Liam a subsidy for people who don't really need it, especially in comparison to others is not what the free tuition thing is touted to be.

It's like the gas tax chop. People on higher incomes get disproportionate, positive benefit.

Now if you think that the function of public policy is deliver disproportionate benefits for the wealthy, call yourself a Republican or a Conservative and get on with it.

Part of what I find curious in this is that a party supposedly on the political left is advocating what is, in effect, a policy from the political right.

It is not about merit at all.

Another thing you haven't factored in is the increased cost - and hence the diversion of tax dollars - to fund the infrastructure to support all those students.

What you and others haven't factored into this is the massive strain on your tax dollars. So will it be a nurse, road paving or another professor at the university to relieve overcrowding?

When oil takes a massive cut in price, who will cover the costs then?

Charge OOP students a fee? Okay. But it won't be the full cost, will it? you can't fund education on the backs of OOP students. There'd never be enough of them for starters. After all, you have to keep them coming. So inevitably you wind up having local taxpayers educating those people who - it must be noted - don't stay here. They derive the benefit of the education, heavily subsisised or free, and then head back to wherever.

Simplistic ideas, simplistically conceived and simplistically presented with the consequences ignored or simply dimissed out of hand. If I didn't know better I'd swear you were a Tea party member. ;-)

Like I said, what is fascinating is having conservative policies coming from supposed progressives or people supporting a supposedly progressive party.

Mark said...

Can someone on this chain please explain to me why we make people pay for groceries? Shouldn't we just have the state absorb the cost of feeding everybody?

Liam said...


My response actually went past the 4,096 character limit. Damn you blogger.com! Obviously this is one of my hot buttons.

I'll try to keep it brief:

Any social good with a standard fee attached to it is inherently regressive in an unequal society. Tuition is an example. It's regressive whether or not you charge individuals $60,000 a year like in the U.S., $6,000 like in Canada, or $0 a year in my fantasy world or a close proximity thereof, such as Ireland. Either way, it is inherently unfair to the poorest that they pay the same rate as the richest.

The trick is, who pays then? And how do we ensure the policy outcome is progressive or "fair".

Well, we can make tuition progressive like our income taxes.

Or, we could establish a base tuition rate and give politicians a web of policy tools to subsidize only those that are deserving (in other words, implementing means tests, which is the status quo in Newfoundland and Labrador).

Or, we can eliminate tuition on everyone, treat it as a social good, and redistribute wealth as I suggested.

The problem with #1 is that it would be impossible to implement and categorically unfair if it was implemented. You would probably have to charge people varying tuition rates depending on their family's previous year's income per annum, which is problematic enough. And to the best my knowledge no one has ever implemented anything like this.

The problem with #2 is that we don't tolerate means-testing in other areas such as healthcare, so it follows that we shouldn't tolerate it for other things we value just as much, such as education. We shouldn't create the conditions where the rich get better quality education because we refuse to tax them for a universal program, while the rest of us settle for an inferior subsidized product. The situation in the US is enlightening here - in Canada, people from all income groups are more likely to go to the same universities and colleges, but that is not necessarily true in the U.S. There is either means-testing to subsidize poor students so they can get into lower-quality schools, or, means-testing in the form of programs that keep poor students in debt when the rich students don't even have to get a loan in the first place. There are a number of fundamental problems with means testing that either don't get at the root of the problem or makes matters worse.

That leaves us with a no-tuition policy, which we can implement, and then neutralize the waste/giveaway effect on the rich by raising taxes, which is something we should be doing anyway.

That said, in Newfoundland and Labrador, we don't even need to raise taxes or user fees or anything else to eliminate tuition. The dollar figure I hear thrown around for a no-tuition fee is so low that the provincial government could probably implement it just by re-prioritizing alone.

Mark: when going to the grocery store starts setting us back $500 per trip, you'll be on to something.

Edward Hollett said...


If we accept your premise that charging everyone the same is regressive then, as we can easily see, charging them all zero is equally regressive.

It does not become - magically - good because we label it a social good. that's like Danny Williams claim about clawbacks that did not become 100% when they actually hit 100% but in his construction became zero. It doesn't make sense.

Your solution 2 is viable. Education is not health care. i don't die if i don't get a university education. I do if I can't afford to get to the hospital when I have a serious medical condition. we means test a great many things in this country, certainly in this province.

In that scenario you've claimed there would be two standards when in fact the education remains the same. It doesn't change based on how students pay for it. I think you are mixing around a bunch of things and confuddling them.

Raising taxes on the rich is a nice thought but it would only be an effort to try and fix a problem after the fact that didn't need to be created in the first place.

And your response to Mark indicates the extent to which you've confuddled necessity with non-necessity.

oh yes: stream of consciousness; you are valuating the education based on current income of the family rather than valuating it by future value of the education itself.

Then there are the points you haven't touched at all:

- fees are not an obstacle to attendance at PSE, certainly in comparison to prior academic performance, and other factors.

- free tuition delivers a disproportionate benefit to wealthier people both at the time of education AND after.

There's room for more chat on this and I think I have an idea no one has come up with here yet.

Liam said...

"I think I have an idea no one has come up with here yet."

Look forward to hearing it.