Free tuition is good. But it’s just a start.

Affordability and accessibility remain barriers for education. But they’re not alone—and that must be addressed.

Third year nursing students Valentina Blinova and Irene Moran study in the fireside reading room at the library on campus at UOIT in Oshawa, ON. (Photograph by Cole Garside)

Third year nursing students Valentina Blinova and Irene Moran study in the fireside reading room at the library on campus at UOIT in Oshawa, ON. (Photograph by Cole Garside)

For a guy hauling around almost $300 billion of debt, Charles Sousa was in a buoyant mood. Ontario’s finance minister had just announced that families making less than $50,000 would soon have free post-secondary education, and when we spoke, it was as if he were daring me to find fault in the idea. After all, he said, the Liberals were removing a critical barrier to higher education, the looming threat of a massive student debt. The idea was instantly applauded by a syllabus of education groups.

Days earlier, the education debate had exploded after Donald Trump declared that he “loved the poorly educated,” a phrase so heartbreakingly absurd that for a split second I thought Trump’s platform must have been crafted by Horshack from the old TV sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter. If a society doesn’t aspire to educate its citizens to the highest possible degree, what good is it?

Free tuition is bold social policy and fundamentally ought to be considered a social good. We accept it for grade school, so why not for post-secondary education? After all, higher education equates with higher income rates. In their peak earning years (ages 50 to 54), university graduates (including the much-maligned arts majors) make an average of $80,000, while community college grads earn in the high 40s, according to Statistics Canada. But young people who stop their education after high school make less than $40,000, and those who don’t even finish high school end up with even more depressed incomes, just over $30,000. So access to post-secondary education matters, as does the type.

But in politics, nothing is quite what it seems. As has been pointed out, the math behind the Liberal promise of “free tuition” is off. The province covers up to $6,160 in tuition, but Statistics Canada says the average undergrad tuition is $7,868. So, if you define “free” as having to pay, at minimum, $1,700, then you probably failed both English and math.

Still, it’s easy to be snarky. For all the quibbling about the gaps, Sousa’s audacious policy move has generated a much-needed national conversation around the affordability and accessibility of higher education. The question is: are these really the biggest barriers to post-secondary education?

That is where things get surprising. “Student debt gets a lot of media attention, however, the amount of average repayable debt has not drastically changed over the past 15 years,” says Martin Hicks, head of statistics at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO). “According to the National Graduates Survey, 50 per cent of undergraduate university students who graduated in 2010 incurred student debt and owed $28,580, up slightly from $27,204 in 2000.” The same pattern is true for college grads.

So, if student debt has not fundamentally ballooned, has it become a barrier to education? Here again, the stats may surprise you. A few years ago, HEQCO and the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation conducted a test called “Willingness to Pay” to see if student debt prevented Grade 12 students from enrolling in post-secondary education. Turns out, it didn’t. However, the thought of losing future income did. “The possibility of opportunity costs—years of not earning an income—was a stronger influencer than debt for low-income students making decisions about higher education,” says Hicks.

A case in point: Overall enrolment in post-secondary education is rising faster in Ontario than in Quebec, even though Ontario has had much higher tuition rates. In 2012, Quebec students held massive protests over small increases to what is the country’s lowest tuition, but it didn’t change much. “The direct costs of university and college do not seem to drive down participation rates overall,” Hicks says.

Make no mistake, affordability and accessibility are still key issues. Low-income families, rural residents and Aboriginal communities have dramatically lower post-secondary participation rates. But looking at the issue solely through an economic lens misses other significant factors at play. A study done by University of Ottawa professor Ross Finnie, called “Does culture affect post-secondary education choices?” found that cultural factors such as family, background and, crucially, an awareness of the benefits of higher education, are critical to outcomes. Children need to be taught the advantages of continuing education. “We must adjust our policy levers from their past emphasis on affordability to focus on these newly identified cultural factors,” Finnie writes.

But the chances that any government will actually pay significant attention to issues confronting young people are slim. Most policies and most of the public money overwhelmingly favour the old over the young. “When looking at total social spending (including health care, education and social services) federal and provincial governments combine to spend around $33,000 per person aged 65-plus compared to less than $12,000 per person under age 45,” Paul Kershaw told me. He is the author of Measuring the Age Gap in Canadian Social Spending and founder of Generation Squeeze, a lobby campaign that represents young workers. “In Ontario, medical care for seniors now costs more than the entire grade school, kindergarten and child care budget, and it is more than three times larger than all post-secondary spending in Ontario,” Kershaw says. Our society values the health of seniors far more than the education of our youth. Period.

Related: Seniors and the generation spending gap

For all the talk about boosting the economy through infrastructure, the biggest job multiplier and engine of growth—our youth—gets the short end of the stick. Sousa’s policy announcement, though laudable, is just a start. While we laugh at Trump’s professed love of the poorly educated, our young people are still at the back of the line, waiting to pay for a future most of them will never be able to afford.


Free tuition is good. But it’s just a start.

  1. If we are going to offer free tuition, then we should have a say in what fields are subsidized.

    Pay for the science, math, business type fields where folks can actually provide something people will pay for.

    don’t pay for ridiculous crap like Women’s studies, gender studies, or other useless crap that won’t get you a job anywhere other than a University campus.

  2. Why not eliminate all barriers entirely? Some students don’t have the grades for university, so let’s just get rid of grade requirements as well? Some students don’t won’t to forgo income earning years to further their education, so let’s also pay them while they are in school!

    If having a university education automatically makes one’s life better, then why don’t we just make it mandatory for everyone to attend university? Of course, simply attending university isn’t enough as you need to have a degree, so let’s also mandate that you are guaranteed to pass all of your courses when you attend as well.

    Afterall, Evan Solomon says that the reason university grads in their 50’s make twice what college grads in their 50’s make is because they attended university. It couldn’t be that there is a limited amount of higher paying jobs in the market, and that finite number of higher paying jobs go to the better educated. Simply, go to university and those higher paying jobs will magically become available, regardless of your major!

  3. Tuition was probably the smallest cost of my university degree. Paying rent and food while going to school full time cost way more than what UBC got. I took some loans, worked through the co-op program, took very little from the bank of mom and dad and paid in full in about 5 years.

    Not mentioned in this article: trade school. A high school dropout with a pressure welding ticket could easily make more than the engineer who tells him how to weld.

  4. “In their peak earning years (ages 50 to 54), university graduates (including the much-maligned arts majors) make an average of $80,000, …”

    It would be beneficial to have the above further broken down by discipline. It’s obvious that doctors, lawyers, and engineers, for example, will earn much more than “the much-maligned arts majors”, so the question then becomes how much do these, and other professional or STEM disciplines, skew the numbers.

    Anecdotally, there are vast numbers of arts graduates working as Starbucks baristas (or other low paying jobs), and *if* that is true, it is because these folks have been repeatedly told that a university degree in any discipline is the key to a prosperous middle class existence. If indeed the “Starbucks arts grad barista” is more fact than fiction, then the narrative needs a good overhauling, as in its current form it would be benefiting neither the individual nor society.

    • Further to that Jim, once you’ve made university educations free, then it will be impossible to get a job at Starbucks without a degree. Who needs a degree to pour coffee and make change? There is little evidence, if any, that there are jobs going begging for lack of degree-holding candidates outside of the STEM fields. There is however, a growing shortage of plumbers, welders, electricians, carpenters, machinists, etc. You know, people who make and maintain all the things that make our society a nice place to live. Try getting a liberal arts major to deal with that stopped-up plumbing issue, or sorting out why the breaker blows every time you turn on that one lamp.
      Then there is the reality that the bulk of the people in Canada that have family incomes in that $150-250K range, are people who own those skilled trade related businesses. In almost any city, the people who own plumbing, welding, or automotive parts and repair shops outnumber doctors, lawyers, and accountants, and make just as much money.
      The focus on university educations is driven from the top down, largely by people who have advanced less on skill, knowledge, and expertise than by the cult of credentialism, where economic advancement is granted not by performance but by the acquisition of certificates. The education world is the very worst offender, and they are the biggest promoters of credentialism. Walk into any school in the country and you can find a handful of teachers who are at the high end of the pay scale, yet are no better than many of their co-workers who don’t have similar advanced degrees. In the end, what makes a teacher with a doctorate any better than one without? If there is no measurable difference in overall student outcomes from teachers with doctorates or masters degrees and those without, why would we pay more for a teacher with a doctorate? Teaching kids how to read and write ain’t exactly rocket science.

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