It didn’t get a huge amount of attention in the news, but Newfoundland recently abolished student debt, and replaced their system of loans with one of needs-based grants. Any advocate of education had to be at least a little heartened by that news. 

Unfortunately, we advocates of education are also all too familiar with what the government considers a ‘need.’ So we are heartened, and cautious, of the news coming from the East.

Will this start a wave of social change that future historians will be able to trace back to the day the government of Newfoundland made higher education finally accessible? One can hope.

It makes good sense. Many people, such as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, are passionately advocating for free college education for all as a way to reduce political inequality and ease poverty, as well as increase the overall critical intelligence of the electorate. Higher education has been shown to increase citizen engagement, and writers like Michael Welton have demonstrated how educational movements in Canada are quite often motivated by the desire to realize participatory democracy rather than representative democracy. The greatest check and balance to the powers of government and corporations, is the people

That is why knowledge and education have been historically withheld from the people. Currently in Canada, the costs of a post-secondary liberal arts or sciences education are outrageously prohibitive to the poor. Even a province like Ontario, with its Ontario Student Assistance Program, doesn’t level any playing fields. Assuming a child raised in poverty somehow managed to attend a school that wasn’t infested with mold, was able somehow to be adequately nourished physically, emotionally, and intellectually at school and home, and achieves the miracle of readiness for university with an acceptance letter and funding from OSAP, that person is then saddled with growing debt each semester, which functions as a deterrent to pursuing Master’s or Doctoral degrees. 

So our system is quite firmly entrenched still in the idea that knowledge is power which must be restricted to only the very worthy. And in a neoliberal capitalist economy, most worthy = most wealthy. The children of capitalists never have to look at a statement of debt from OSAP. They never have to weigh decisions against this insidious beast and settle for the bare-minimum certifications to get done as soon as possible with as little debt as possible. So the highest education which leads to the highest positions in the corporatocracy, remain generally reserved for these children of privilege.

The indebted poor who manage to stick it out until the end don’t get to philanthropically decide how best to use their education, either. Soon after graduation, the statements become bills, and interest starts accruing. The pressure to get a job, any job, builds and builds. And so students sacked with debt often enter the labour market. This is a form of oppression which gives with one hand and rapes with the other. 

The children of privilege, debt and fancy free, can take their time and be strategic about how to gain CEO positions or presidents offices, for example. This is to say nothing of the doors which open and close based on who is approaching them. The children of the poor have to be exceptional to make the social connections that the mediocre among the privileged elite enjoy as a matter of course.

I grew up in a blue collar family plagued by nomadism and boom/bust economics. When it came time for my sister and I to consider our futures, we were told by OSAP that our parents had enough money to finance our education. This decision was made on my parents’ income tax statements alone taking nothing of our family context into account. Our family income was unsteady, and there were many times my parents struggled to pay the rent and put food on the table. And here they were being told they had enough resources at their disposal to keep two children fed and housed well into adulthood, while paying thousands out of their meagre and unpredictable incomes  to finance tuition and books.

This is the root of my wariness where the ‘needs-based’ nature of Newfoundland’s student grant program is concerned. Will the government finance the post-secondary education of children such as I was? Where will the ‘needs’ line be drawn? What will it take to move that line? Who would be excluded by such a criteria-based system? 

So, it’s a positive step forward in the fight for education rights, but it has the potential to just be more of the same. I think a better system makes all education free for anybody, regardless of income, class, race, or gender. That’s how you level a playing field. But a step forward is a step forward. I just hope the people of Newfoundland keep their government accountable to the vision of accessible education.

Randy Edward Nicholas

@redwardnicholas

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