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Margin Notes

A few more thoughts about tuition

Student groups advocate for reduced tuition fees because that's what their members want.


So Ontario students had their “drop fees” rallies on Nov. 5 (see a very energetic video of what you missed here). I do find student groups a bit fixated on cutting tuition, and as I’ve said before, I find the idea of across-the-board tuition cuts dubious.

But I wanted to add a little bit of nuance to those views and also cut student groups a bit of slack. Student advocacy is about representing and defending the views and opinions of students, and what student wouldn’t want a cut in tuition?

Blogger and professor of postsecondary education studies at Memorial University, Dale Kirby, made much the same point in his blog yesterday:

[I]t is absolutely appropriate for student groups to advocate for reduced fees as an advocacy service to their members, much in the same way that it’s fair game for any union to advocate/bargain in favour of membership benefits. That’s what unions do.

I also think that there’s a bit of an end-game going on here. Even if student leaders privately think there’s little chance provincial governments will actually cut tuition fees, they likely feel it’s important to keep up the pressure so that governments will at least think twice before allowing fees to rise.

How effective that tactic has been is up for debate. Tuition fees have risen considerably on average in the past 10 years (about 4.5 percent annually, according to Statistics Canada); but then again, there are also several provinces where tuition has been frozen (New Brunswick, Newfoundland) or cut (Nova Scotia, its second tuition cut in as many years). Manitoba and Saskatchewan also had tuition freezes for several years. (StatsCan’s most recent tuition update is here.)

But where I still have a problem is when student groups advocate for tuition cuts as a way to boost access. I again quote Dale Kirby, a far greater expert on these matters than me:

While universal subsidies in the form of further tuition subsidies (e.g., freezes, reductions) … are sometimes proposed … to increase post-secondary participation levels, there is little empirical evidence to support this proposition.

This view was also supported recently by Ben Levin, who holds the Canadian Research Chair in Canadian Research and Policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. Speaking at the ongoing Senate committee hearings on access and equity in postsecondary education, he had this to say (from an article in the Epoch Times):

While student groups commonly cite tuition fees as one of the main barriers to accessibility, the evidence does not support this viewpoint, Mr. Levin said.

“The evidence suggests that non-financial barriers are at least as important, and probably more important, than financial barriers.”

Mr. Levin said statistics show that half the students in Canada do not borrow at all to finance their post-secondary education, and in fact very few students end up with huge debt loads. Moreover, only about 10 percent of students have difficulty managing their debt.

Mr. Levin recommended against reducing or freezing tuition fees.

“We should be trying to keep them modest and moderate, and we should be trying to prevent sudden or rapid rises, but reducing tuition fees would be a counter-productive policy because it would be quite expensive and have very little impact on participation or equity of participation.”

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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