Statistics Canada’s recent report on university tuition fees for the 2010-11 academic year put the issue of the cost of a university education again in the spotlight. On average, full-time undergraduates paid four percent more in tuition this year than the year before, raising the average tuition in Canada from $4,942 to $5,138. Undergrads in Ontario paid the highest fees on average ($6,037), followed by those in New Brunswick ($5,516). Students in Quebec ($2,415) and Newfoundland ($2,624) continue to have the lowest tuition fees in the country.
Adding fuel to the debate was a report that quickly followed, published by the Canadian Council on Learning. The CCL report found that average debt for a university graduate in Canada more than doubled between 1990 and 2000, from $12,271 to $24,706. By 2009, the average debt had hit $26,680. The rise in debt loads follows news that the Canada Student Loans Program has for the first time reached its $15-billion ceiling, requiring a further allocation of funds.
Then the clincher: a troubling but not surprising report this week from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario found that cost concerns and “loan aversion” may be discouraging some students from pursuing a postsecondary education. The council summarizes the findings thus:
The results of the study show that students from lower-income families, those with less educated parents, Aboriginal students, and boys are more likely to take cost into account when considering PSE. The research also indicates that between 10 and 30 per cent of students participating may be unwilling to finance their post-secondary education with loans. Under-represented groups are slightly more reluctant to pursue loans, which may be more a function of a tendency to underestimate the future benefits of PSE. Given the relatively high degree of loan aversion overall, a number of individuals, especially those who have few alternative funding sources other than student loans, may find PSE to be unaffordable and thus not enroll [emphasis theirs].
What to do? The HEQCO report suggests, sensibly, that higher levels of targeted grants might encourage more students from lower-income backgrounds and those with less-educated parents to pursue PSE. It also says governments should consider decoupling grants from the need-based aid application system.
As for the more general debate about tuition fees themselves, there are few within the PSE sector willing to hazard what the appropriate level is – $10,000 a year? $5,000? $2,000? Free? Most have accepted that professional programs like medicine and law – with their higher costs and promise of higher wages upon graduation – should cost more than degrees in the sciences, social sciences and humanities, but apart from that there is little agreement.
Certainly, the argument can be made that a university degree is still an excellent investment, with the benefits to the individual far outweighing the costs in most cases. The recent Education at a Glance report from the OECD makes just that case, citing higher earnings and employment levels, as does the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, and the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.
Yet, the question remains: what is the appropriate level for tuition fees in Canada? I don’t have the answer, but I do think that annual increases in tuition that are double the rate of inflation, as has been the case in Ontario over the past few years, are not sustainable, unfair and politically unwise. What’s your view?