Skip navigation
Margin Notes

Cutting tuition fees a dubious proposal

I just don’t think that would improve the accessibility and quality of a university education.


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.”

P.S., there are several videos circulating to promote the drop fees campaign, including this one from the University of Toronto Students Union and this one from Ryerson University.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Jo VanEvery / October 30, 2009 at 11:24

    The general move to increased tuition fees to compensate for cuts in per-student public funding to higher education (in several countries) is usually accompanied by a shift in the discourse towards seeing it as an individual good, rather than a public good.

    You fall into this trap by discussing future income potential first in your article and giving little attention to the public good that higher education provides.

    First, historical data on income is not a good indicator of the future because it might be based on the relatively low proportion of the population with higher education degrees. The qualifications required for lower paying jobs are increasing.

    Second, higher education is a public good. We all benefit from a better educated society, whether we individually have that level of education or not. And thus paying through taxation and publicly funding higher education makes sense.

    Of course, folks want it both ways. They want low taxes AND good services without high user fees. And politicians have been pandering to that. Someone has to start making the case for public spending on public goods.

  2. Graeme Turner / October 30, 2009 at 16:55

    I’m certainly inclined to agree with most of what Jo said, especially that first paragraph.

    I’m also not very impressed with that 2004 report Léo cited and I wouldn’t count on it for any solid argument. It does little (from what I read) to justify its conclusions other than a few odd statistical diagrams, and it kind of felt like the writers had their conclusion ready before starting to write (I could be wrong but that’s the vibe I got from reading it). It’s also out-of-date, and a look at Newfoundland and Labrador’s PSE scene from 1999-2009 would contradict some of the report’s findings, as well as claims that lower tuition yields a lower quality of education.

    That said, I definitely agree with the “I dun get it” reaction to the slogan “Drop Fees for a Poverty-Free Ontario”. I’d like to hear the CFS-O’s take on how all poverty in Ontario is directly linked to inaccessible PSE. Poverty on the broad scale in Ontario deals with the homeless, mentally ill, people from abusive homes, people who couldn’t manage to find a decent job with their degree/diploma, etc. STUDENT poverty, however, definitely links into fees and accessible PSE. With the huge drop in student employment this summer, the high cost of education and inadequate student aid is proving to be insurmountable for more and more students.

    And as for highlights of the “Canada’s Education Action Plan” document from the CFS, I’d rather point to Page 11 (as numbered on the document, not the pdf) with the comparison with the $$ value budgeted for loans and the GREATER $$ value budgeted for tax cuts and savings schemes (which quite often don’t benefit the needy). This should come as a fairly shocking fact for government policy wonks and I hope this garners the most attention, as a giant investment in up-front grants (ie converting every $ of loans into $ of grants) would solve most of the funding problems for public PSE students.

  3. Joan / October 30, 2009 at 16:55

    You don’t get the connection between tuition fees and poverty? Seriously?

    Well, let me try to clear it up for you: Getting an education requires thousands of dollars in tuition fees. Many students don’t even have hundreds of dollars to provide basic nutrition for themselves.

    As a student, I myself and many others have had to make the decision to eat one meal a day in order to afford tuition fees.

    Youth unemployment is at an all–time high. The jobs aren’t there for us.

    What the province is saying is that education is for the wealthy, and if you’re poor/middle class, you’ll be left behind.

    How can it be right that as a student from a low-income family, I will pay double in the cost for my education because of loans?

    How can it be right that as a student who must work to make ends meet, I will be less likely to do well and get scholarships or go into graduate education because I’m spending all my spare time trying to cover my cost of living?

    And what are these “other hurdles” that the economically disadvantaged have to overcome that makes “the situation complex”? Be specific.

    Because the fact of the matter is, the economically disadvantaged (i.e. racialised people, with disabilities, aboriginal communities, the queer community, women) don’t have money to go to school. So continuing to raise tuition fees is systemic discrimination of these specific groups.

  4. Tessa / November 8, 2009 at 02:02

    I have to agree with the writer here, ask any impoverished high school kid if even a $2000 drop in tuition fees would increase their likelihood of attending university. Lower tuition fees only benefit the middle class, not the poor.

  5. Simon Howey / November 18, 2009 at 05:05

    We don’t give food stamps to everyone. Cutting tuition costs is a flat transfer to all students(or their parents). I don’t see how a means-tested alternative isn’t superior. Of the limited funds available do we really want a negligible subsidization of education for everyone – even for those who can easily afford it – or do we want to increase means tested aid to significantly improve affordability of education for those people where cost is a significant barrier to access. Subsidized tuition fees benefit everyone who attend university and in so far as the disadvantaged and poor in Canada don’t attend university this significantly undermines the progressiveness of the tax system by creating a systematic transfer of wealth to university attendees who are, on average, the richest and most advantaged citizens.

    If you want to improve access to post-secondary education for the most disadvantaged in society you need to be looking at primary and secondary education and means tested aid, not general tuition fees.