The recent release of tuition fee data from Statistics Canada certainly gives ammunition to students’ groups in their perennial campaigns to freeze or drop fees. Tuition fees for undergraduate students rose on average 3.6 percent for the 2009-2010 academic year, while inflation for the 12-month period up to August 2009 actually dropped 0.8 percent.
Ontario was ranked as the province with the highest undergraduate tuition fees, with students paying an average of $5,951 a year. The Canadian average is $4,524.
So, the first question: is a degree worth the cost? Well, I firmly believe it is. In fact, it is still a relative bargain in terms of the possible payback in earned income and career options.
The next question: is it affordable? Well, that depends. For some, yes; for others, not so much. But government aid, however imperfect, is available.
But others may counter: those from economically disadvantaged groups are not as well-represented in university. Yes, and that is worrisome – every Canadian deserves a chance to receive higher education. This may be partly due to financial reasons (debt aversion, for example), but these individuals often face other hurdles as well, so the situation is complex.
Either way, I still believe that calls to cut tuition fees across the board are misguided, if not perverse (in the sense of wilfully stubborn). Most studies suggest that tuition fees are not the main barrier to accessibility and that increasing student aid, particularly non-repayable grants, is more effective in boosting access.
Plus, if tuition fees were reduced, how exactly do students’ groups propose universities make up the lost revenue? Do they really think provincial governments, drowning in red ink, will kick in the difference? Fat chance. (Indeed, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty recently said that a tuition freeze is not likely in face of the ballooning deficit.)
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that universities don’t deserve additional funding. I fully support University of Toronto professor Roger Martin’s assertion in his article in Walrus magazine that university funding should be boosted and quality improved. And I find former Ontario premier Mike Harris’s recent ruminations – that cuts to postsecondary education during his tenure were the right thing to do – strain credulity (I’m being kind).
And here’s the rub: students’ groups seem to be lobbying both for tuition cuts while also lobbying for increased quality of education. But, I don’t think you can square that circle. How exactly will a drop in tuition fees help universities to improve access, in the sense of allowing them to accept more students, and improve the quality of the educational experience?
A 2004 study on tuition policies in five different countries concludes (pg. 49) that tuition cuts “can reduce the quality of education even as they make it more affordable. Freezes, reductions or elimination of fees can potentially leave the university with less money to do its work.”
Finally there’s perhaps the biggest non-sequitur: a campaign by the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Federation of Students to “Drop fees for a poverty free Ontario,” which includes province-wide rallies on Nov. 5. According to the group, “with 1.3 million people in Ontario living in poverty, it’s time to Drop Fees and invest in a Poverty Free Ontario.” Sorry, I don’t get the connection.
But, so as I don’t sound too negative, I do think several of the proposals in the Canadian Federation of Students’ Education Action Plan (released in October) are worthy of support, particularly this one:
The federal government should develop a post-secondary education cash transfer payment for the purpose of reducing tuition fees and improving teaching, learning, and research infrastructure at colleges and universities. The transfer should be guided by the principles set out in a federal Post-Secondary Education Act, developed in cooperation with the provinces.
I would just leave out the part about “reducing tuition fees.”