Is Higher Ed Racist?

A new report from the Ontario Federation of Students claims the province’s post-secondary education system is guilty of institutional racism. POUND examines the evidence.

Post-secondary education has long been considered a vehicle for social mobility: Get into college or university, do well, get a decent job, and you can go move beyond your humble beginnings to a comfortable life in the Canadian middle class. But this equation has always been dependent on college and university being accessible to all, regardless of race, ability or class. A new report from the Ontario Federation of Students (OFS), entitled “The Racialised Impact of Tuition Fees”, breaks down the declining accessibility of higher ed and the social and economic realities facing many students, including institutional racism.

According to the report, over the last twenty years average undergraduate tuition fees have more than tripled—from $1,818 in 1991-1992 to $5,951 in 2009-2010. Tuition fees in Ontario are the highest in the country and have increased from between 20 to 36 percent since the tuition fee freeze was lifted in 2006 (What up with lifting that freeze anyways Dalton?).

70 per cent of jobs in this so-called knowledge economy demand a post-secondary education. Whether a degree or diploma is actually needed to do the job is questionable; what is not questionable is that only 30 per cent of employers are down with hiring someone who has less than a college or university education.

As the report makes clear, not all groups have been impacted equally by the declining accessibility of post-secondary education. For racialised people (aka people of colour or back in the day, ‘racial minorities’), economic barriers to college and university are especially high.

We know that in Ontario, and country-wide, poverty is racialised; that is racialised people experience significantly greater and disproportionate rates of poverty than people who are not racialised. We also know that, in relation, racialised people face discrimination in the labour market, in applying for and getting jobs, that white people don’t.

According to the report:

Average undergraduate tuition fees are a higher percentage of the average income earnings of visible minorities than non-visible minorities … The burden posed by tuition fees has gotten worse, making the racialised impact of tuition fees even more acute. Census data from 2001 and 2006 reveals that tuition fees consume a growing percentage of the average wages of both non-visible and visible minorities, but the impact of tuition fee increases is disproportionate for the latter… Racialised people are, on average, less able to afford the cost of rising fees.”

So higher tuition fees, while hurting all students and especially poor and working class students, hurts racialised students more (as they are disproportionately poor and working class, get it?). In addition, racialised students are taking on more student debt and ultimately paying more for their education as the banks gobble up those interest payments. OSAP helps, but this is still debt that needs to be paid off, never mind the fact that loans through the program are available to fewer and fewer peeps as the government cuts back. The report states:

Racialised people, who are already marginalised in the labour market, are further penalised by disproportionately bearing heavy student debt for longer and paying more for their education overall. This system not only exacerbates existing socio-economic inequity, but it also inherently favours students from more affluent backgrounds.”

Of course this is a case of class inequality in education but also a case of institutional racism, which the Ontario Human Rights Commission defines as “practices and decision-making processes that, intentionally or not, prevent the full and equal participation of all individuals or groups regardless of place of origin and skin colour. Systemic, structural and societal racism is manifested through policies, practices and decision-making processes that, intentionally or not, prevent the full and equal participation of all individuals or groups regardless of place of origin and skin colour”. Now that’s a mouthful, but the key here is that policies and institutions don’t have to be intentionally racist to produce racist outcomes.

As the OSF report concludes, “the rising cost of post-secondary education in Ontario reinforces, deepens, and constitutes systemic and societal discrimination against racialised people.

As we gear up for a new school year, the student movement should be demanding free tuition not just a tuition freeze. We should have free post-secondary education alongside a system of targeted grants to offset other costs for disadvantaged groups. For years this has been the reality in many European countries, so don’t let the politicians tell you it can’t be done. The accessibility of post-secondary education is a matter of both economic and racial justice.

Published on POUNDmag.com, September 3 2011

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