The politics of tuition fees and access

Solving access more complicated than dropping tuition fees


The Educational Policy Institute’s Alex Usher discusses the relationship between tuition fees and post-secondary education access in his latest EPI Week in Review commentary. Here’s an excerpt from Usher’s on-line column:

The biggest canard, of course, is that tuition raises are immoral because they endanger access. It’s elementary economics right? If you raise the price, demand decreases, right? Stands to reason. The problem is that the evidence for this isn’t very good. Consider:

  • Internationally, participation rates of low- or zero-tuition countries tend to be equal to or lower than those of higher-tuition countries. Even within countries, this is true: Nova Scotia’s tuition rate is three times higher than Quebec’s, but participation is still higher.
  • Low or zero-tuition countries don’t even have the benefit of saying that their systems are more equitable or open to lower-income students. There’s no evidence at all to suggest this, and indeed there’s some evidence to the contrary.

Why is this? Simple: because student aid programs, by and large, work.

The latter point is especially important, but the level of assistance that is currently available is not working for everyone. Consider, for example, that while inflation-adjusted tuition fees at my university are lower than they were over a decade ago, there are still a number of disadvantaged populations who are significantly under-represented in our classes (e.g., low-income youth, Aboriginal peoples, people with disabilities).

The reasons for this continuing inequity are far more complex than the price of tuition fees alone. It is perhaps most important to recognize that decisions to participate in post-secondary education are influenced by the various forms of capital that students possess including academic, cultural, financial and social capital. As a result, strategies for more universal participation must go beyond the issue of sticker price and conceptualize access more comprehensively.

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The politics of tuition fees and access

  1. Well put, Dale!

  2. I agree entirely with the notion that addressing access to post-secondary education cannot be restricted to tuition fees. Unfortunately, many who argue that tuition is only one amongst other factors limiting access to PSE for certain groups somehow conclude that we shouldn’t focus on tuition fees as a mechanism for increasing accessibility. In fact, of the many reasons that students choose not to pursue post-secondary education, lack of finances is the primary reason. I will make a couple points here to combat Usher’s claims.

    – Lack of financial resources have consistently been cited as the leading factor as to why students choose not to pursue post-secondary education.

    – Public opinion polling by Ipsos-Reid on the public’s priorities for post-secondary education shows that 80% of British Columbians support reducing tuition fees

    – Students are responsive to tuition prices. For every $100 increase in tuition price, one would expect the participation rate to drop by about 0.7 percent (Vossensteyn and Canton 2001).

    – Enrolment after 2011 is expected to drop sharply. Lower tuition fees will serve to attract a greater number of students to post-secondary institutions to make up the shortfall.

    – “Sticker shock” is a documented effect. A report from New Zealand shows that report states that students are effectively deterred by the up-front costs of higher education, both in terms of tuition and living costs. If this is the case, the availability of student loans to fund higher education will not have the effect of encouraging enrolment from low income students. The obstacle for these students to overcome in order to enroll is the cost of tuition and/or living expenses, not merely the prospect of incurring debt (Education and Science Committee, 2001, p. 15).

    – Research from the United Kingdom provides evidence that those most likely to be deterred by the financial disadvantages of student loans were from the lowest social classes and especially students from the lowest social classes expressed concerns about borrowing, debt, and repayments (Callender, 2003).

    And oh yes, who could forget this:

    – Canada has an international obligation under the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Article 12.2c) to reduce tuition:
    o “Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education.”

  3. While that are valid arguments for reducing tuition, I suggest, to anyone who will listen, that we shouldn’t focus on tuition fees as THE PRIMARY mechanism for increasing accessibility.

  4. Dale – when you write an article, the highlight of which is an Usher excerpt that argues that tuition fees don’t affect access, you can understand that someone might be confused into thinking that the message of your article is ‘tuition fees don’t affect access’. This stance is, of course, incorrect. Instead of rallying against a mechanism that you believe is suboptimal, I would suggest that it would be far more constructive for you to say what you think is the primary mechanism for increasing accessibility and explain why.

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