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Op-ed: Cape Breton Post misinforms readers about tuition campaign

by Garry Leech

The Cape Breton Post distorted the facts in order to discredit the Zero Tuition campaign launched last week at CBU by students union president Brendan Ellis (left), faculty association president Scott Stewart (centre) and university president David Wheeler (right).
The Cape Breton Post distorted the facts in order to discredit the Zero Tuition campaign launched last week at CBU by students union president Brendan Ellis (left), faculty association president Scott Stewart (centre) and university president David Wheeler (right).

This article was originally published in the Cape Breton Independent

Without a doubt there are people who will disagree with Cape Breton University’s new campaign for tuition-free post-secondary education in Canada. Many of those will debate the issue based on the merits of the proposals put forth by the campaign. Sadly, the Cape Breton Post is not among them. Instead, the Post’s recent editorial on the topic chose to misrepresent the facts of the campaign and misinform readers by taking a stance that serves the interests of the wealthy at the expense of most Canadians.

After noting that CBU president David Wheeler was calling for a system of progressive taxation at the federal level to fund tuition-free post-secondary education, the Post then claimed that the campaign “places the onus on some future federal government to simply tax Canadians more to pay for it” and that the “majority of Canadians” would not be in favour of paying such a tax. Firstly, it appears that the Post’s editors don’t understand the concept of progressive taxation. And secondly, that they either didn’t bother to read the campaign’s literature or they chose to ignore it because it challenges the interests of the wealthiest Canadians.

The Zero Tuition campaign’s website clearly states that “very modest adjustments to corporate and higher-income tax rates would comfortably generate the required $6 billion per annum in new revenue.” Clearly, adjusting the corporate and higher-income tax rates would not impact the amount of tax paid by the overwhelming majority of Canadians and it is disingenuous for the Post to say that it would.

The Post’s attitude constitutes a form of fear mongering as it tries to convince Cape Bretoners that most of them will pay higher taxes if the campaign is successful. In actuality, the campaign is simply suggesting that a reversal of some of the recent tax cuts enjoyed by corporations and the wealthiest Canadians would be sufficient to fund post-secondary education—and I’m not so sure that a majority of Canadians would be opposed to that. But for some reason, the Postdecided to obscure this reality and falsely suggest that it would be the majority of Canadians rather than the country’s rich who would bear the brunt of a tax-funded post-secondary education system.

In 2000, corporations operating in Canada paid a 29 percent corporate tax rate; today they pay only 15 percent—among the lowest in G-20 countries. According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, this reduction means that the federal government is relinquishing $19.6 billion a year in revenues—more than three times what it would cost to fund tuition-free post-secondary education.

Ottawa has justified its slashing of corporate taxes by claiming that it would act as a stimulus for the economy. In other words, corporations would invest their savings from the tax cuts and create jobs. But where are those jobs in Cape Breton? Or in much of the rest of Nova Scotia for that matter? Over the past 14 years, the principal investment by corporations in this region has consisted of box stores and call centres, both of which create minimum wage jobs with few if any benefits. Furthermore, many of these jobs would likely have been created even without corporate tax cuts.

Meanwhile, the reduction in federal revenues from corporate tax cuts has meant that Ottawa is no longer transferring sufficient funding to the provinces to support education, health care and infrastructure costs. So, in return for a few minimum wage jobs, Cape Bretoners are now forced to endure under-funded education and health care systems as well as crumbling infrastructure (i.e. roads). Meanwhile, corporate tax cuts have meant that an increased share of the national wealth is in the pockets of the richest Canadians—the executives and major shareholders who are the primary beneficiaries of the tax cuts—thereby dramatically increasing inequality in Canada.

The Post’s editorial does accurately point out that Nova Scotia’s universities “face a collective shortfall of tens of millions of dollars,” but it fails to note why, even though this is explained clearly on the Zero Tuition campaign’s website. In 1992, government funding accounted for 82 percent of university operating costs. Today, it covers only 57 percent. This dramatic decline is a direct consequence of the federal government relinquishing revenues through tax cuts for corporations and higher-income Canadians.

The result has been a dramatic increase in average annual tuition costs in Canada from $1,464 to $5,959 over the same period, which is the primary cause of the rapid rise in student debt. And for those who think the current generation of students has an unrealistic sense of entitlement by calling for tuition-free education, think again. There is no generation since World War Two that has had to pay anywhere near the high tuition rates that today’s youth are burdened with.

Tuition-free post-secondary education is not a radical idea. More than 40 countries around the world do not charge tuition, including the majority of G-20 nations. In fact, six out of the ten countries that rank higher than Canada in the UN Human Development Index provide tuition-free post-secondary education. Given that Canada is a wealthy nation, it is not unrealistic to think that Canadians should have the same right to tuition-free post-secondary education as people in many other developed countries.

The Zero Tuition campaign’s website calls for “a needs-based grant program to address non-tuition-related debt” in conjunction with government-funded tuition, but the Post believes that “Nova Scotia’s universities should concentrate on increasing need-based grants before pushing for free tuition.” One can only wonder if the Post thinks that publicly-funded health care should also only be available on a needs-based basis and that the majority of Canadians should pay out of pocket for it? If this were the case then we would have a health care system like that in the United States where 50 million people lack health coverage. Instead, here in Canada, we believe health care is a right. And with regard to grade school education, does the Post believe that the public funding of schools should also rely on needs-based grants? Thankfully, we still believe that free grade school education is a right.

Thirty years ago the majority of Canadians could obtain a decent-paying job with a high school diploma, but that is not the case anymore. Today, 53 percent of Canadians over the age of 15 have completed a post-secondary education. Therefore, it could be argued that, for many, a post-secondary education is essential for obtaining a job that pays a living wage. Therefore, shouldn’t post-secondary education also be deemed a right as it is in so many other wealthy nations? Furthermore, as the campaign literature notes, studies have repeatedly shown that most people with a post-secondary education earn more than those with a high school diploma, therefore they would pay more taxes throughout their life under a progressive taxation system and easily pay back the cost of their education.

Finally, the Post’s editorial suggests that Nova Scotia’s universities need to focus on collaborating with each other instead of trying to offer tuition-free programs. Again, the Post  fails to note that it is the shortage of government funding that forces institutions to compete against each other. Without this competition for scarce resources, universities would be far better situated to work together rather than against each other.

As the Zero Tuition campaign makes clear, it would be relatively easy to fund a tuition-free post-secondary education system by simply reversing some of the tax cuts enjoyed by corporations and the wealthiest Canadians. But instead of debating the merits of this approach, the Post instead decided to distort the facts of the campaign in order to instill in its readers an unjustified fear of higher taxes and to shift the blame for our current post-secondary education and student debt crisis away from the country’s wealthy and onto universities themselves. Rich Canadians could not have penned a better editorial in favour of their interests if they had written it themselves. Shame on the Post for distorting the truth about a local initiative that seeks to address such an important national crisis.

Author: Garry Leech is a member of The J. B. McLachlan Media Collective and a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Cape Breton University.


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