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Margin Notes

What to do about tuition?

A number of recent reports have again pushed the issue into the spotlight.


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?

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Nora Loreto / September 30, 2010 at 12:02

    Enough is enough with this generational warfare. The system flourished in the 1960s and beyond when funding was dedicated to schools and access widened. Almost every person who makes decisions to increase tuition fees benefited from a highly subsidized system and it’s morally unfair to draw money from my generation just because the older one doesn’t want to pay for it.

    If a system of high subsidies and progressive taxes helped to educate more Canadians than ever before three decades ago, its a model that will continue to work today.

  2. Jo VanEvery / September 30, 2010 at 12:03

    And what if we react to “loan aversion” differently? What if it is those students who are making more sensible choices?

    Maybe those students are making a rational choice about their career desires, career prospects, and the individual value of a degree over other options.

  3. Dale Kirby / September 30, 2010 at 12:21

    If there is a compelling reason to increase tuition fees, and there are very few of those here in Newfoundland and Labrador at the moment, then I would suggest holding any increases to the rate of inflation.

    Of course, depending on the rate of inflation, that “solution” could also show itself to be less than ideal, if not extremely problematic.

    Ultimately, tuition fee decisions are ALWAYS political, and there are, most often, valid arguments the whole way round.

  4. Grant McMillan / September 30, 2010 at 13:24

    It’s interesting that this conversation is going on in the US, but they’re complaining of tuition rates at $25K per year, not the $5K or $6K we’re talking here. While I agree that we should keep this conversation at the forefront, I also believe Canadians are going to have to adjust to a new reality that we have to save money to go to university or to send our kids to university.

  5. Dale Kirby / September 30, 2010 at 13:54

    @Grant McMillan

    Tuition fees at U.S. universities are most certainly not “$25K per year”. This may be true for a few select private universities, but in 2009 the average annual in-state tuition at a public universities in the U.S. was just over $7K. That’s quite a difference.

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