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Margin Notes

Some sobering thoughts on tuition

Despite student lobbying efforts, it continues to rise in most provinces.


There’s been quite a bit of discussion recently about tuition levels in Canada. Actually, the topic rarely leaves the minds of student groups – particularly the Canadian Federation of Students, which actively advocates for lower tuition.

They’ve had some limited success in the latest round of provincial budgets: Newfoundland is maintaining a tuition freeze, as is New Brunswick, along with a freeze in ancillary fees. But tuition will be going up nearly everywhere else: universities in Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan will all be able to hike tuition by 4.5 to five percent next year – well above inflation – while B.C., Alberta and Quebec will see somewhat smaller tuition hikes.

Considering the CFS is often called “leftist,” it gets some support for its advocacy efforts from an interesting source: a University of Lethbridge professor who blogs under the name “Campus Conservative.” He writes: “I believe student groups are preparing to fight back against demands that they pay more. They should fight back, especially in the absence of a system of loan repayment tied to income.” The entire blog post is well worth a read.

On a related note, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations laments in a new report that rising fees and declining quality means university students are “paying more money for less education.” In current dollars, tuition was $2,750 a year back in 1967, less than half what it is today, the report notes. Every year since 1990, tuition increases in Ontario have outpaced inflation.

The OCUFA report makes for some sober reading, but it remains to be seen what traction it will get from government. I suspect Ken Steele of Academica Group is correct in his analysis of the situation, as reported in an article from the Globe and Mail:

Education consultant Ken Steele sees increases in Canadian tuition levels as inevitable, given the competing demand on government budgets from health care. “I think governments are naturally reluctant to do anything that is unpopular,” he said. “Universities are going to be crying louder and louder that they need more resources. I suspect tuition is the only place we are going to see any give.”


Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Joey Coleman / April 7, 2010 at 10:22

    I’m not sure if our friend in Lethbridge fully realizes the irony of his statement. The CFS is opposed to a income-indexed repayment plan; they managed to make that scheme a third rail of Canadian post-secondary education policy.

    The new assistance in repayment program does share a great deal of commonality with income-index repayment plans; but it is not labelled that way and Ian Boyko of the Canadian Federation of Students reacted very strongly when Erin Millar and I reported the similarities during Budget 2008.

  2. Melonie Fullick / April 7, 2010 at 16:28

    The blogger cited uses a specific definition of the word “conservative” (i.e. not the Harper-esque, neo-liberal Reformatory definition, which is what often comes to mind these days). I think has some relevance for the fact that he raises the CFS tuition argument and agrees with it.

    Another point is that not all ‘income-contingent loan repayment’ is the same. The real concern with these kinds of loans is when they are accompanied by massive tuition hikes, and lack of ‘interest relief’ for borrowers faced with lengthy repayment periods.

  3. Craig Monk / April 7, 2010 at 22:08

    I am an advocate of income-indexed repayment, though I am not married to any specific scheme. Precisely because it is a “third rail,” it’s premature (if not futile) to discuss details. I am simply trying to establish a simple, important principle: governments allow some of us to charge differential fees, believing that graduates of certain programs will eventually make more money; if we are going to acknowledge that some students will be able to afford to repay a greater amount, why use this conclusion to reinforce disincentives to begin certain programs when it could be used to stabilize our entire enterprise?

    I have no opinion, or in-depth knowledge, of the particular platforms of the Canadian Federation of Students. Our Students’ Union at Lethbridge, along with the SUs at other Alberta universities, has been active in seeking to keep the other revenue shoe from dropping in this province. The Alberta government has tied off operating grant money; I cannot blame students from seeking to ensure that the shortfall is not made up off their backs… Not unless it is part of a thoughful and sustainable rethink of the whole approach to tuition. And, this afternoon, according to a student rep, the government has decided to deny our request to raise our fees, over time, to match those at UofA and UofC, as it would require increases in excess of the rate of inflation.

    The answers to our problems, apparently, are all on the expenditure side. That’s the conclusion to draw from our provincial government. But students also have much to fear from cuts to those things for which they’ll still have to pay.

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