Spending on students makes sense

A guest post from PEF Steering Committee member, Nick Falvo, initially published in The Charlatan:

Spending on students makes sense

Students from across Ontario took to the streets Nov. 5 to fight for a fairer deal for post-secondary education. This is a struggle that students must fight to win, as decreasing government funding, rising tuition fees and a slumping economy continue to place university education out of reach for a growing number of Canadians.

Last week’s Charlatan opinion piece raised questions about how the Canadian Federation of Students’ (CFS) proposal for increased government funding could ever be sustained. While it is sensible to raise such concerns, rest assured that the CFS proposal is sustainable.

Government can and should be pushed to commit more funding to both increase access to post-secondary education and reduce student poverty.

Over the past several decades, senior levels of government in Canada have decreased funding for post-secondary education. Indeed, government grants as a share of university operating revenue in Canada decreased from 80 per cent to less than 57 per cent between 1986 and 2006.

As a result, the share of university operating budgets funded by tuition fees has more than doubled during the same period (increasing from 14 to 29 per cent). To be sure, tuition has been rising at the same time that the economy has nosedived.

This year, roughly 80 per cent of post-secondary students in Canada said they plan to work while in school. And 70 per cent of high school graduates who do not pursue post-secondary education cite financial reasons as the main factor.

As of this year, Canada’s largest province has the distinction of having the highest tuition fees of any Canadian province at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Some Ontario-based student activists, tongues firmly planted in their cheeks, have since taken up the motto: “We’re Number One!”

A Harris/Decima opinion poll commissioned by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) and the CFS reveals that Canadians believe that tuition fee reductions should be the top priority for government investment in education.

The same poll indicates that 69 per cent of Canadians want the federal government to take more control over transfers to the provinces for post-secondary education.  Finally, it finds that 70 per cent of Canadians believe that university tuition fees should be either frozen or reduced.

The CFS and CAUT have recently recommended that the federal government establish, in consultation with the provinces, conditions for federal post-secondary education transfers. The conditions would commit the provinces to uphold principles around public administration, affordability, comprehensiveness, democratic governance and academic freedom.

In return for upholding these principles, provincial governments would receive increased and predictable funding from the federal government.

As the authors of last week’s opinion piece pointed out, any responsible proposal to lower tuition fees should state where the money would come from.

Each year, the CFS participates in the development of both the Ontario Alternative Budget and the Alternative Federal Budget (AFB).

This year’s AFB presents a two-year fiscal stimulus package that calls on increased federal spending.  It works from the premise that increased funding is sustainable, provided that the size of Canada’s economy grows faster than the size of its public debt over the long term.

Details of this macroeconomic and fiscal framework can be found at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ website: www.policyalternatives.ca.

Of course, as good as the CFS proposal looks on paper, students, faculty, as well as university administrators and governors, must mobilize to make it a reality.

Ontario students have taken to the streets to demand more accessible post-secondary education.

This year’s campaign has an expanded scope, calling for a poverty-free Ontario. We have joined with labour and health-care workers, and community organizations.

Members of the above constituencies understand that governments need to commit more funding to post-secondary education, even if it means taking on a sizeable ― though perfectly manageable ― amount of debt. We owe this to our youth.

Because we should indeed strive to be Number One.


  • The tuition subsidy is regressive; most of the money from tuition cuts would go to kids from high-income families. They’re going to university anyway; that’s free money to them.

    Aim the money at grants for students from low-income households and at debt relief instead.

    I don’t know why the CFS insists on making a priority the *only* form of PSE support that benefits rich families.

  • What I have always argued is that we should bring back 3 year degrees. At the very least for students who do not wish at the present time to attend grad school or who are not in a particular program that may require a full 4 years of study. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard fellow students state how they are taking a bunch of classes they are not interested in and which have nothing to do with their major.

  • People over 19 years of age are of the age of majority and the income of their parents has no bearing on their income. The assumption that young adults have access to funding from their parents in the quantity to get a post-secondary education is simply bogus.

    At the same time I have always found the CSF position a little bogus. The majority of the cost of PS education is living costs not tuition. Given that universities moved to a fair market value on residency fees the cost for a PS education for those from outer regions has increased tremendously. So there are factors other than just household income.

    Given the strong correlation between income and education it would seem as though progressive taxation along side regional subsidies and low tuition fees would be the most egalitarian way to deal with PS funding. But I guess if you are already ideologically predisposed against progressive income taxes then high user fees and ad hoc redistribution schemes are the slick answer.

    Although as an olive branch, let me be on record as the first to encourage that any and all public subsidies be withdrawn from the funding of economics departments (including research grants as they mostly involve rationalisations of the status quo, i.e., the in-egalitarian distribution of resources, aka, the righteousness of high income households and high income disparities).

    The cognitive dissonance must be overwhelming. How does an liberal political economist sleep at night? Although, it is a tough job and someone has to do it…I suppose it is just another one of those naturally distributed proclivities. And to paraphrase Keynes, there is some merit that you all should not be free to run wild in the streets and that certain socio-pathologies get transformed into intellectual parlour games via a twisted public goods avenue of argumentation.

  • Chris Wrote:

    “I cannot tell you how many times I have heard fellow students state how they are taking a bunch of classes they are not interested in and which have nothing to do with their major.”

    OMG like they might have to learn something that did not come naturally to them or that they were not interested in. Welcome to reality. Console yourself (and your friends) with the fact that these extraneous courses will make them better conversationalists at parties where their immediate majors are not he majority. Ever gone to an engineers party? Not pretty.

  • Stephen wrote:

    “Aim the money at grants for students from low-income households and at debt relief instead.”

    The CFS has consistently argued for needs-based grants and debt relief. Read any of the reports authored by the organization and you will find these policies advanced.

    Tuition fee reductions are the cornerstone of the strategy because up-front costs are the foremost barrier. The fact that 80% of students plan to work while attending post-secondary suggests that for the vast majority – not just the “rich kids” – tuition fees (among other costs) are a significant burden that interferes with their studies.

    Debt relief does nothing to address debt aversion due to high tuition fees – it does nothing to improve access for those who are not in a position to assume debt. Debt relief assumes that students will be in debt to begin with. It is important as a short-term coping strategy, but I would hope that our ultimate goal would be that students would not have to dig themselves into a hole to gain an education.

    Finally, the true purpose of needs-based grants should be to subsidize those for whom costs during study such as travel, housing, food, etc are already a significant burden regardless of tuition fees (as Travis noted). Needs-based grants, I would suggest, should be continued even if tuition fees are eliminated (which I also suggest).

  • Marc,

    I read this post looking for reasons why government “spending on students makes sense.” Instead, I discovered that the title is a bare statement of preference: “I would rather that the gov’t spend more on post-secondary education.” The case made here is that gov’t has been paying less and students paying more. Tendentious, self-justifying, and thus not helpful.

    That students have been paying more for post-scondary education has been documented. The real question is WHY spending on students makes sense. It’s unhelpful simply to assume that post-secondary education is universally necessary (it certainly isn’t, since plenty of people get by without it), and it’s rather naive to think that everyone will agree that all Canadians ought to have a right to post-secondary education. Why should the gov’t guarantee such a right? And what do we mean by a right to education in the first place? That young workers who _want_ a credential should get one? Or that young citizens who need an education should get one? These are the tough questions that need answers.

    After reading this post, I still want to know: Why does gov’t spending on students make sense? If we can articulate a sound, sensible case from both the gov’t’s point of view and the citizen’s point of view, we’ll be helping the cause of gov’t funding for post-secondary education. That students have to pay more for their university degrees (remember, we all expect these students to go on to earn more) doesn’t seem like anything to worry about in itself. And that students should protest having to pay more seems irritatingly obvious; of course they’re going to protest–any beneficiary of a subsidy will protest if it’s taken away or its value erodes.

    Again: we need the reasons _why_ spending on students makes sense, since the political reality is evidently that we can no longer assume that everyone agrees that it does.

  • Why do we like to skirt the issue of source of government revenues! Currently the 3 levels of govt. leans heavily on tax payers to makes ends….. meet! There is seem to be a deliberate attempt (conspiracy) by those in power to hide this blatant truth from the public. Canada is extremely rich in Natural resources to be scrumbling for crumbs and small change under the table. What Canadians needs is political education- the truth shall set you free. The MNCs both local and foreign that are now massively sucking Canadian non-renewable Naturals resources must be releived of their duties immediately. What Canada needs is leadership with GUTS! somepeople with BALLS! to stand up for Canada. Let that leadership emerge from the student or ordinary Canadians.
    MOVECanada Movement

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