An argument for universal education

“Undergraduate education should be tuition-free,” proclaimed the award-winning novelist and essayist John Ralston Saul to a student audience.

Saul’s address on Sept. 30, entitled “Post secondary education as a public good,” was hosted by Carleton’s Graduate Students Association (GSA) as part of Carleton University Students’ Association (CUSA)’s campaign to lower student fees.

In his address Saul, the husband of former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, stressed the importance of post-secondary education to Canada’s development as a country.

“Education is about being a member of society, a member of Canadian civilization,” he said. “For an egalitarian society, you need educated citizens.”

Saul’s theory is that Canadian students graduate from university with more than $25,000 worth of debt, so instead of taking risks and doing something that they truly believe will benefit society, they get a job.

By the time these graduates have paid off their student debt, they have settled down and have their own families to take care of. This debt makes students more obedient and less goal-oriented, Saul said.

“Education is stuck in an increasingly-linear and an increasingly-utilitarian approach to society. And the utilitarianism is really at the heart of the problem,” Saul said.

Saul related Canada’s problems to the principles upon which Canada operates: “Peace, order and good government.” He argued that Canadian institutions are stuck on the European ways of doing things, when really it was the Aboriginal way of life, the acceptance of people of different ethnicities, and the desire to learn from each other, that really influenced the Canada we know today.

“They created public universities to create citizens,” he said. “We have put a blanket over the memory of how we became a country in which the university is a public institution.”

Saul argued that nowadays university is only for those who can afford it. This means that the students attending university may not necessarily be the ones who deserve to, just the ones who can fork out the cash.

Saul is a hugely-successful writer, publishing numerous novels that have been translated into more than 22 languages throughout more than 30 countries worldwide. He writes mostly about political and economic issues.

“I think the address is critically important,” said GSA president Kimalee Phillip, “simply because he is speaking about public education, and students here at Carleton are in that system.”

“We’re hoping that this address will remove some of the apathy that students tend to feel at Carleton. Some students don’t understand why they should get involved so we’re hoping that this will mobilize students and provide them with very well-informed historical information.”

“I think speakers like this are important to get people engaged,” first-year PhD student Michael Audette-Longo said.

Proceeds from the event’s ticket sales went to the Marion Dewar Scholarship. The scholarship was founded in honour of the Dewar, late mayor of Ottawa, who fought for the equality of immigrants and for their rights to education.

Each year four refugee students who are academically deserving and engaged in their community, as well as those who can demonstrate financial need are rewarded $1,000 to go to a post-secondary institution of their choice, in Ottawa.

 “We want to assist students who are from minority groups in accessing education,” Phillips said.

After all, education is what Saul calls “an investment which creates wealth in every form.”