Public universities should be free

With obvious social and economic benefits, free public universities should be prioritized

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Letter blocks spelling “school”
PHOTO: Oleksandr Pidvalnyi / Pexels

By: Victor Tran, SFU Student

In Canada, the cost of higher education has become a topic of increasing concern. In response, the question of whether Canadians have the right to access higher education has come to the forefront. In recognition of universities’ fantastic benefits to society, it’s time to eliminate their greatest barrier to higher learning: tuition.  

Education is one of the best strategies for raising people out of poverty. Reducing the cost burden associated with higher education is a critical part of levelling the playing field among students from all income levels

In Canada, lower-income teenagers are less inclined to attend universities. According to a report by Statistics Canada, only half of 19-year-olds from low-income families’ decided to participate in post-secondary education, compared to almost 80% from higher-income families. 

This trend is a barrier to financial stability. Statistics Canada reports that 73.3% of people with a bachelor’s degree had a job in 2022, while only 53.7% of those with just a high school diploma were employed. This leads to massive differences in average income over a long-term period. By age 35, Canadian men with a bachelor’s degree are earning an annual average of $64,000, compared to $44,000 for their high school graduate counterparts. At age 35, Canadian women with bachelor’s degrees are earning an annual average of $37,000, compared to just $20,000 for high school graduates. Removing the financial burden posed by tuition will increase the attendance rate among all citizens and help more Canadians break out of a cycle of poverty. 

Austria is a prime example of the benefits of free public universities. In 2008, the Austrian government erased all education fees for EU citizens; by 2015, the university attendance rate reached 81%, from 51% before the education reform. The resulting increase in bachelor’s degree holders should contribute significantly to the economy. The same is the case for other regions; the University of Minnesota’s graduates contribute $8.6 billion to annual GDP, while the University of Illinois’ graduates contribute $9.5 billion. In 2008, Austria’s GDP reached $432 billion — a 28% increase within 2 years of providing free education. 

Before we get too enthusiastic, we have to consider the potential pitfalls, starting with the problem of paying for free public schools. Free public school is not “free” the cost is borne by the taxpayer. Germany,  which provides free university education for national and international students, has a 49.4% tax wedge, which means an average worker in Germany has to give up half of their income. Canada, on the other hand, has a tax wedge of only 31.4% in comparison. 

It’s not easy to raise taxes as a politician. To fund free public education, the government could face enormous backlash when raising the tax bracket. But public education pays back. It’s one of the best investments a country can make, fueling competition, innovation, and economic growth. An educated population is a benefit, too. University graduates are more likely to vote and less likely to subscribe to conspiracy theories. It’s a great investment, but we have to be patient. 

Free higher education in Canada might seem far-fetched despite its outstanding benefits, but other countries are making it work. It’s time for Canada to join their ranks and prioritize its citizens’ development.