Do Tuition Rates Matter?
Alex Usher is a frequent commentator on post-secondary education in Canada.Â He regularly blogs for the Globe and Mail at globecampus.ca.Â
Yesterday, he wrote an open letter to leaders of Canada’s three major political parties in which he offered advice on post-secondary education policy.
I found the following passage to be particularly provocative:
First, scratch anything that vaguely resembles a policy on tuition fees.Â No credible research shows tuition to have a substantial impact on access, and, in any case, it is entirely a matter of provincial jurisdictions.Â
Even policies like paying provinces to reduce fees (NDP policy from 1997 to 2006) or rebating fees to students (Liberal policy in 2006) have weird distributional consequences because they would involve vastly different subsidies to different provinces, based on existing tuition.Â
Money in student aid is a slightly more promising idea because at least it’s targeted.Â But you might want to keep your powder dry on this one.Â Student aid costs are already set to rise significantly over the next few years as interest rates rise … and the jury is still out on whether the recently-introduced Canada Student Grants are going to cost what was originally predicted or if the recession and lax eligibility criteria will blow the lid off costs.Â
He then added:
If you absolutely must pour money into student aid, do yourself a favour and make sure it’s cost-neutral; whatever you stick into student aid, you should take away from education and textbook tax credits.Â These cost a tremendous amount of money and achieve absolutely nothing.Â Everyone knows they only exist because they are a cheap and convenient way for the federal government to shovel money to the middle class without having to deal with the provinces.Â Cutting these would offend no one in the sector; if you cut them and redistributed the funds elsewhere in education, you would win plaudits.
I would like toÂ offerÂ three points in response to this.Â First, according to a December 2009 reportÂ byÂ the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS)-Ontario, average student debt load for a four-year degree in Ontario has increased by 350 percent in the past 15 years.Â In other words, more bodies may be coming into Canadian universities, but they’re more broke upon graduation than they used to be.
Second, high tuition fees hit some groups harder than others.Â As CFS-Ontario points out in another report, high tuition fees are particularly hard on students from racialised groups.Â If equity matters to the leaders of our three major political parties, they should think twiceÂ before heedingÂ Mr. Usher’s advice.
Finally, I am concerned about quality.Â Indeed, as a full-time graduate student myself, IÂ am concerned by how much my fellow students are workingÂ while they study.Â Something I find particularly worrisome in my own PhD program is the number of students who, very early in the course of their studiesÂ (sometimes even in the first year ofÂ a PhD program), take on full-time employment.Â I believe that high tuition fees exacerbate this.
I do not believe that high tuition rates are as innocuous as Mr. Usher suggests.
Nick Falvo is a Calgary-based research consultant. He has a PhD in public policy.