After a three day convention, free tuition could be on the federal NDP party platform come 2019.
During their party convention in Ottawa last weekend, the federal NDP officially added free tuition to their policy book. Delegates voted to accept a resolution that added new commitments to the policy book, which alongside free tuition, included the elimination of student debt, more upfront grants for students in need, zero per cent interest rates for student loans, and a guarantee of the treaty right to education. Items in the policy book reflect the values and aspirations of a party and serve as the base from which election platforms are created. However, not everything in the policy book gets into the party platform.
Students’ Union president Marina Banister said that while most of the resolution falls in line with what the SU has been advocating for with the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA), she called the goal to eliminate tuition “very ambitious.” Even if tuition is free, she said, it doesn’t mean other fees and expenses would disappear. She believes student advocacy should instead focus on eliminating those barriers through tools such as needs-based grants.
“One of the things we’re very supportive of is moving as much money as possible into upfront grants,” Banister said. “That is a more significant priority for student advocacy rather than one across-the-board blanket solution.”
If universal free tuition were to ever be implemented, Banister said it would be important for the university to keep receiving backfill funding so it could still function fully.
“Just because something’s free doesn’t mean the cost goes away, it… has to come from somewhere else,” Banister said. “It’s very much on our radar to make sure that if this ambitious goal is seen through that the backfill funding will also come through.”
John Hutton, a member of the Courage Coalition, a left-wing grassroots political group that proposed the resolution at the convention, also wrote its first draft. He said he felt the need to take action on tuition costs because he thinks postsecondary education has become essential for getting ahead in the workforce, and it’s never been as expensive as now.
“The average student graduates with about $26,000 in debt,” Hutton said. “And it’s mostly working class people that are being punished for trying to get an education that… is necessary to (get ahead) economically.”
At the convention, he said no other issue received as much support as free tuition.
“When it reached the floor, there was a huge amount of support,” Hutton said. “Nobody spoke against it, and when it passed, I didn’t see any cards raised from delegates in opposition, so I think we can call that unanimous.”
While he said the acceptance of the resolution is a big win, the next step for Hutton is making sure free tuition ends up in the NDP’s 2019 election platform.
“Often what happens is that these resolutions are seen as very aspirational,” Hutton said. “Election platforms don’t always fully reflect what’s in the policy book. So we want to make sure that free tuition is in the 2019 platform.”
While support was strong at the convention, the resolution has also drawn criticism. Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, said elimination of tuition fees would give tens of thousands of extra dollars to rich families who don’t need it while still leaving other barriers to education in place. He believes other policy issues, such as clean water on reserves, early childhood education, and investments in science, would be a better use of that money.
“How far down the list would giving money to kids from families earning over $100,000 be?” Usher said. “Of all the policy problems we have in Canada, how far down the list is that? For me, it’s very very far down the list.”
He said he is much more in favour of grant programs like those in Ontario that offset tuition for below-median income families.
“(Those grants are) totally reasonable,” Usher said. “But when you start saying ‘We really need to start giving money to families earning over $100,000,’ that’s where I get off the bus and say ‘There are better ways to spend that money.’”
The big question for Usher is whether or not free tuition ends up becoming part of the NDP platform.
“Free tuition is a big chunk of money,” he said. “When they start pilot-testing… and do their costing of the platform, that’s where I think it matters. But we’re not there yet, so I’m not sure it has huge practical significance.”