Every week (or so), two Torontoist staffers square off to debate an issue that’s important to our city. We invite our readers to join the debate in the comments section following the post.
This month has seen protests at Queens Park by students who are angered over rising tuition fees at universities and colleges, and want the province to do something about it. So are high fees really hurting students and limiting access to higher education, or is this just a case of a small group pursuing its own interests at taxpayer expense? Read on to find out what we think.
The best chant students protesting tuition hikes could come up with during their recent march on Queen’s Park was “Liar, liar, pants on fire! You said fees would go no higher!” Apparently the vast majority of our university students have not improved their rhetorical skills since kindergarten. They were soundly defeated in the sloganeering contest by the small group of counter-protesters holding up signs that read “Get back to class, you truant hippies!”
But students have every reason to be upset. Fees for general arts programmes have doubled in the last ten years. Costs of other programmes have tripled and some profession programmes have seen increases of even larger multiples; at this rate, students will soon have no money left for beer, Ramen noodles or condoms. Yet, during this period of massive increases, the system as not improved: class sizes have not gotten smaller, facilities have not gotten better, and libraries are not better stocked.
Quality has not improved because rising tuition fees have not been about getting more money into the education system. The increases are simply about shifting costs from the government unto the backs of students. In the mid-1990’s the federal government changed the funding formula for transfer payments to the provinces. This resulted in nearly $2 billion dollars disappearing from the post-secondary education system. The provinces failed to pick up the ball and this burden was passed along to students. The result is a system that is chronically under-funded and university graduates who are saddled with record levels of debt.
If anyone else were paying two or three times what they used to pay for a product or service and the quality continued to drop, everyone would agree that they had a right to be angry, but when students protest they are called hippies. Contrary to opinion, most students are more than willing to contribute to the cost of their education; they just want to be treated fairly. The parents of many of today’s students came of age in an era where 80% of the cost of a university education was provided by the government. Today, even though a university education is more important than it has ever been, the government covers less than 60% of the cost.
Sure, in a just and perfect world, a university education would be freely available to all qualified candidates. In this dream world, we would find the money to fund a post-secondary education system that was absolutely top-notch: we would find the best researchers, hire the most compelling professors, and fill our classrooms and libraries with first class technology. We would realize that investing in education is investing in our future. And, of course, all of the raindrops would be lemon drops and gum drops. But, oh, what a world it would be!
Until we get that perfect world, can we at least make this one a bit fairer? It’s time to restore the federal funding to post-secondary education that was cut in the 90’s and any future increases to student fees should be tied to measurable improvements in the quality of education. Fair is fair.
Shades of the sixties – angry students carrying signs and marching on Queens’ Park, voices raised in protest. And what are they demonstrating about? Genocide in the Sudan, the disastrous US war in Iraq, government failure to act on imminent climate catastrophe? Nope, not in 2007. This overwhelmingly middle class collection of youth has taken to the streets to complain that their education is being insufficiently subsidized by the working people of the province.
There’s no doubt that higher education is a social good, and a franchise that must be available to people from all income groups. However, statistics demonstrate that there’s virtually no relationship between tuition fees and educational access for students from low income families. A 2005 Statistics Canada study showed that after professional program fees were deregulated (and rose dramatically), “Ontario students from the least educated families, whose parents had no post-secondary qualifications, were …more likely to pursue professional degrees”. More than twice as likely as they had been previously, in fact, possibly due to increased availability of grants and bursaries.
While it’s true in Canada as elsewhere that children from higher income families are more likely to attend university, a report released this month found that the difference could be attributed almost entirely to differing family expectations and to lower marks in high school. Coming from a family that places a high value on a university degree is the most important factor in predicting whether a person will pursue post-secondary education, and economic status proves to be a very small determinant. Consequently, the primary beneficiaries of lower tuition fees would the children of upper middle class parents who, for entirely non-economic reasons, constitute the majority of university students.
Beyond that, Ontario fees are not particularly expensive by international standards, at an average of $4960 per undergraduate student. By comparison, rates in the US for public universities average about CAD6719 annually (private schools can be three to four times as much), and in the UK the maximum fee, which has become the de facto standard, is around CAD6830 a year.
Bob Rae, former Ontario Premier and sometime socialist, undertook a comprehensive study of the subject a couple of years ago. His conclusion? That tuition fees should be deregulated and students supported by a better system of grants and loans.
Canadian universities are already falling behind their US counterparts in terms of class size, up to date lab and other equipment, and ability to attract well-qualified faculty. Lower tuition fees will only accelerate that process, without making any meaningful difference in the numbers of low income students able to benefit from post-secondary education. If the goal is truly to ensure that a university education is available to all qualified applicants, resources would be better allocated towards supporting those students rather than giving a broadly based subsidy to a largely affluent group.