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From the admin chair

Thoughts on tuition

All-quiet masks problems on the tuition front.


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.

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Doug Owram is deputy vice-chancellor of UBC Okanagan and a Canadian historian.
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  1. Dr Herbert Pimlott / June 15, 2011 at 14:41

    While I appreciate your identification of inflation as part of the equation that saw the low percentage of university costs (or income?) paid for by student tuition fees, I do think we have to consider something comparable between minimum wage rates and tuition fees to make universities accessible for students from non-affluent backgrounds.

    As a working-class teenager, the costs of tuition were always a concern. I certainly would not go to any university, including the one that I teach at now, with the kind of costs that I have to incurr.

    In 1978, however, I could afford to go to university (in BC)for the equivalent of 4 weeks of full-time work (40 hours per) at minimum wage ($3 per hour). In Ontario at present, students pay closer to 16 weeks: basically four (4) times the amount of work that my generation had to do to pay for tuition.

    I don’t believe that it is just the cost of faculty salaries that is a root cause here if for no other reason than classes are so much larger than what I took when I was an undergraduate.

    For example, in my department at Wilfrid Laurier University, we teach first-year classes of 300-400 students. Our third-year classes are 50 and last year many classes exceeded that number to cope with cutbacks by the Administration (even though the provincial government made no cutbacks).

    However, the Administration has been expanding the number of administrators (estimated at a 48% increase in the last five years versus a 13% increase in faculty and a 18.5% increase in students). (These are the University’s own numbers, by the way.)

    Compare that with the late 1970s and early 1980s and third-year classes of 15-30 students (I think there was one I took – a required course – with around 40-50 students in it). My professors were usually full-time and permanent, whereas today at my own university at least 35-40% of classes are taught by Contract Academic Staff or contract faculty (who may be teaching at more than one university to try to earn enough to pay off student loans and other debts incurred while studying for a doctorate). (This, of course, is another issue: the lack of respect shown by Administrators for contract faculty in terms of pay and conditions. Ironic, isn’t it, that universities encourage people to study for a PhD and then want to hire them at McJob rates of pay – even when they’ve earned the PhD from the very same university that treats them with such disdain?!)

    Part of it the problem are the low wages available to students when they do graduate: many students also study for a one-year diploma in PR or marketing or Human Resources but still end up working for $25-30,000 per year in Toronto and owe anywhere from $25-42,000.

    Universities need to re-think what is at the heart of their mission as well as rethinking how they charge for tuition. Perhaps, we need to consider what the minimum wage is and ensure that NO student has to pay more than say four (4) to six (6) weeks of minimum wage for their full-time university tuition fees.

    Universities also need to re-think why they have become so top-heavy with senior administrators and why so much money is being expended in extra-curricular areas rather than in the core missions of the university: teaching and research.

  2. dr.doinglittle / June 16, 2011 at 14:00

    Universities’ largest budgetary expense, by far, is employee salaries.

    It seems fitting then that, if government can’t provide more funds and tuition needs to be kept affordable, make the necessary cuts to staffing and programming. I suggest starting with some of the graduate programs out there that grant degrees with next to zero job prospects. Replacing tenure with limited term renewable contracts will also save money, as well as rid depts of non-performing dead wood.

    Universities need to innovate, or government will come in and do it for them. Look what is happening in the US if you need examples.

  3. Norma-Jean Nielsen / June 22, 2011 at 10:19

    Thank you Dr. H. Pimlott. Your comments were thorough and wise.

    Administrators at the college where I teach earn at least 50% more in salary than senior faculty members. I respect their positions, but faculty positions also need respect. It is no secret based on current research that student success is directly tied to the relationship with teaching staff.

  4. S. Lawrence / June 22, 2011 at 14:21

    Doug Owram has made a neat summary on fluctuations of tuition fee controls and the role of politics in these trends. One of the unresolved issues he ends with is the fact that the cost of education “which is not necessarily equivalent to tuition costs”, results in high student debt. As a reader, I hope he pursues this point further as I would be interested to know how significant a contributor tuition plays in student debt. Moreover, student programs are being subsidized partially through government and third parties – this fact combined with the potential opportunity cost of those who pursue university studies, in lue of workforce participation, could result in a cost to society. Granted education brings its own benefits, but from an economic perspective it would be interesting to know the cost of tuition to students and society over the short and long term.