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The Daily Tar Heel

Education is an asset, not a basic right

Just like the phantom lane violation that may have cost UNC–Asheville the game against Syracuse, asserting a right to education during the recent debate over tuition was just the wrong call.

It was no surprise that the debate became heated. In the middle of a recession, finances are squeezed on both sides: tax receipts are down while family budgets are tight. University administrators face issues with faculty retention, large class sizes and program cuts, while students will be forced to bear a far larger burden in the years to come.

That’s where the debate is. When tuition goes up, students — especially middle class students — are hurt. Instead, protesters muddled that message by simultaneously claiming that the state constitution ensures free university education and that we have a right to education (in the abstract).

The first claim is easily dismissed. The North Carolina Constitution guarantees that “the benefits of The University of North Carolina and other public institutions of higher education, as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense.” In practice, going to UNC has cost money right from the start. Tuition in 1802 — seven years after UNC opened its doors — was $20 (about $300 in today’s money).

By 1840, tuition was $50, about $1,160 in today’s dollars. Cheaper, yes, but remember that these were the days when we had two administrators, seven faculty members and students were charged for firewood and candles.

The alleged right to education is more pernicious because it seems reasonable on its face. In reality, claiming a right to education makes no sense. UNC only has a 32.5 percent acceptance rate. Are we to suppose that 67.5 percent of applicants’ rights have been violated? Do you have a right to education at UNC–CH specifically, or does an education at UNC-Wilmington suffice?

On a more serious level, the right to education belongs in the realm of positive liberties, not among the individual liberties upon which our country was founded. We are promised the right to the “pursuit of Happiness,” not happiness itself. A right to education implicitly denies this by claiming a right to the fruits of others’ labor which directly contradicts our nation’s fundamental values.

That isn’t to say that access to universities should only be restricted to those that can afford it. We can still decide that university access is a societal good — as North Carolina has — and ensure that everyone should have the opportunity to attend college. But we shouldn’t dilute the meaning of the word “right” by calling university education a right.

Even those who believe college is a right have to concede that it was a bad tactic. Seeking to inject the right to education in the debate was not an exercise in reasoned discourse but an attempt to shame those with whom they disagree into silence. Ultimately, this proved futile because framing the argument as a right negated their ability to participate effectively in negotiations.

Claiming that universities should be free and that we have a right to college sounds nice, but doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Unless someone agrees with those basic axioms — which the Board of Governors didn’t — you won’t get anywhere. In theory or in practice, those claims just don’t make sense.

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