As I write this column, in April, universities will be completing the annual tuition debate. In my own province, domestic tuition increases are limited to two percent a year. That means the debate here lacked passion, partly because the stakes are low and partly because when tuition is increased at what is basically the consumer price index, the chances of rejection are close to zero. With some notable exceptions, and for all the variety in detail between provinces, the same pattern existed nationally. Certainly, tuition is a less-heated issue than it was a decade or so ago.
However, the relative absence of contention masks unresolved issues that require discussion, including accessibility, debt and adequate funding for universities. I hope this column will act as a springboard by discussing how we got where we are and the limitations on change. A future column will suggest ways that the discussion might move forward productively – for both students and universities.
Though differences among provinces and institutions are significant, Canada has long operated within some basic assumptions around tuition. The most important is that public universities should be funded through a mix of public and private sources. The balances have shifted over time and not always in one direction.
Two eras stand out. The first was the 1970s. This era held assumptions that made it politically unacceptable to significantly increase tuition. Yet the same decade brought rapid inflation, and year after year the real value of tuition dollars decreased. The result was that by the early 1980s, tuition contributed only about 10 to 14 percent of operating revenue – the lowest in history.
Low tuition was sustainable as long as government supplied the balance, which happened, more or less, through the 1980s. Then in the ’90s, governments came to grips with outsized deficits. Universities, like other publicly funded institutions, faced dramatic cuts. To make up the gap, governments in most provinces (Quebec was the notable exception) let go of the reins on tuition. Increases that might have been expected in the inflationary ’70s were experienced in the 1990s. Changes of eight or 10 percent or more were common.
The dramatic increases brought tuition to the fore and tuition-setting season was marked by heated debate, divided campuses and administrative searches for new ways to generate revenue – from professional programs to international students and so forth. The result was a return to something like the era before the 1970s, both in terms of the real cost of tuition and the balance between user pay and public good. Early in this century, tuition accounted for almost a third of university operating income.
Such rapid increases brought reactions. First, there was widespread concern that tuition increases could hurt accessibility for students from lower-income groups. Thus, student-aid programs – both bursaries and loans – occupied more and more attention from universities and governments. As well, rapid tuition increases year after year made the issue more visible to voters and therefore of more concern to government.
One by one, the provinces moved to limit university freedom to impose large tuition increases. The balance between public and private funding was once again stabilized. Thus tuition has receded as a major issue, though no scheme to increase costs is without potential controversy.
Now, for the most part, universities and students operate within a low-key, routinized discussion around tuition. Students call for reductions and administrations argue for flexibility to manage cost pressures. However, it is governments that hold the authority to change the rules, and they face two contradictory forces. On one side, rising health care costs and recession-induced deficits direct them towards a user-pay model as in the 1990s. On the other hand, unregulated tuition increases are politically unpopular with students and their parents. So it is easier to link tuition to CPI, or even freeze tuition, than face demonstrations on the lawns of legislatures.
Yet two issues remain unresolved. The first is that the cost of education (which is not necessarily equivalent to tuition costs) leaves many students with high debt levels and may discourage others from attending. The second is that the combination of tuition controls and government deficits creates a pessimistic scenario for university funding. Neither problem can be ignored if a conversation on tuition is to be productive.
Doug Owram is deputy chancellor and principal of UBC Okanagan. He is also a Canadian historian and member of the Royal Society of Canada.