Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Some politicians, and apparently some citizens, need reminding that money in government coffers doesn't belong to the government - its a common pool of public wealth.

The primary philosophers of western thought saw government arising from the common interests of society - the social contract. Said Jean-Jacques Rousseau:
"The Sovereign, having no force other than the legislative power, acts only by means of the laws; and the laws being solely the authentic acts of the general will, the Sovereign cannot act save when the people is assembled." (On the Social Contract, Book 3, Chapter 12)

So it was frustrating to read Paul Wells column on the Quebec tuition row. In one of those 'I'm joking. But seriously, what do you think?' intellectual balloon-floating moments, he proposes letting some universities raise their tuition freely, while others either freeze or further lower tuition, and suffer the supposed consequences of poor education quality.

He may as well have given the Quebec student protest movement the 'here is how things work in the real world' speech that's genetically coded into fathers across privileged North America. He cites the university funding deficit of $620 million Quebec schools face versus the rest of Canada, where tuition is much higher. He's correctly identified a tension. Educating students costs money. Keeping tuition low can starve schools and leave students with poor quality education. It's one reason why I've generally opposed tuition freezes.

But funding education is not a fight between students and government alone. Public university education is a benefit, directly or indirectly, to almost all actors and members of our society.

A study of the impact of university spending by the Minnesota government suggests it costs the state there $326 million in economic costs for a benefit of as much as $786 million per year.

Students and government benefit in terms of higher wages, fewer demands on public programs, lower crime and more. But what the study fails to measure, but mentions, is the benefit to businesses. Specifically, businesses who hire more university-educated workers see boosts in productivity in university educated and lower-educated workers alike. Not only does a university education increase the quality of workers available; for many jobs, uneducated workers simply could not fill needed positions without further training.

In essence, the costs of training demanded by employers has been downloaded to the public university system and subsidized by all taxpayers. Train conductors and engineers for Canada's railways used to be educated in-house, at the employer's expense. But recently, a program was struck at a college in Manitoba. Now students pay $10,000 for a months-long program to be able to be employed as a conductor.

Corporate taxes directed specifically toward public education would help level the balance of obligation amongst those who benefit from public education. Yet raising corporate taxes specifically to fund education has not been part of the discussion while students are being called on to pay more. Corporations receive direct benefits from publicly funded university just like students do.

This option would be on the table if we saw government for what it really is - a re-distributor of private, corporate and public wealth, not a source of money in and of itself. If we want to have the benefits of public education - as the Minnesota study suggests we should - then we need to as a society decide the contributions of every beneficiary - private, public and corporate - to fund the best public education system possible.

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