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 -