The way by which tuition fees are set in Canada is nothing short of insane. There is no overarching principle to point to, such as an agreement on the proportion of their education students should be fairly asked to pay. And while coming to an answer to that question would be wholly arbitrary, it would be nothing compared to the blatantly politicized process being witnessed across the country.
Universities take proposals to provincial governments outlining their financial shortfalls and explain that if only tuition were allowed to rise they could ameliorate their problems. Student groups, in turn, take their own proposals to the government claiming that any tuition hike would be nothing short of devastation. The province then comes to some conclusion based on analysis that must assuredly be plucked from thin air, and then sets the price.
While I am generally unpersuaded by the argument that keeping tuition low is a social necessity, there doesn’t appear to be any coherence to why some faculties are permitted to raise tuition and not others. Or put another way, why students in some faculties will continue to enjoy comparatively lower tuition while others will not.
Just last week, the Alberta government ruled that some faculties were worthy of tuition increases while others were not so worthy of tuition increases. At the University of Alberta tuition will rise between 15 and 66 per cent in engineering, pharmacy, grad studies and business. Proposed increases for the U of A faculties of medicine, law, dentistry and others were denied. At the University of Calgary, only tuition for business school was permitted to rise.
A similar scenario is about to play out two provinces over as the University of Manitoba is preparing proposals to increase tuition in no fewer than eight professional programs, which want to see tuition rise between 20 and 114 per cent. The first faculty to take its proposal public was the Izzy Asper School of Business, with Dean Glen Feltham holding several Town Halls with students last week. The Manitoba government will only consider tuition increases for professional schools, and none from the arts and science.
The Alberta government argues that the faculties approved for tuition increases made a sound argument as to why, when tuition was reduced to 2004 levels and increases were capped at inflation, tuition was too low to begin with. In addressing these “market anomalies” the government compared the cost of tuition for programs at comparable universities.
Although there is an appeal to some principle, that the benchmark for raising tuition include some reference to costs at other schools, different standards appear to be applied. For instance, why would medicine at the University of Alberta be denied a tuition increase? It is true that at $12, 460 per year, tuition for the U of A’s medical department is somewhat above the national average of $10, 261, but that average includes Quebec where, because of a long-standing tuition freeze, a year of medical school costs $2,468.
Now if you look at schools that the U of A might reasonably be compared with, like, I don’t know, the University of Calgary, which, as I understand, is a short drive from the U of A, a different picture emerges. Medical school tuition at the U of C is $17,850 which is on par with the University of Toronto which charges $17, 200. The U of A proposal to raise med school tuition to $15,100 would have brought it inline with the University of British Columbia, but would still be well below Calgary and most Ontario schools.
Compare that to the U of A’s business school which was given the green light to raise tuition. At $5,100 per year, it was, like medicine, close to on par with the national average for business school tuition, but, unlike medicine, will now rise and be more comparable to some of the more expensive business programs in the country. Are business schools special?
Another way to look at this is the cost of tuition compared to total program costs, which, in Manitoba, institutions are asked to calculate. Program costs are calculated by adding faculty expenditures with shared resources like libraries and dividing the total by the number of students. The University of Manitoba publishes these numbers along with other institutional statistics. (I have not come across a similar calculation elsewhere. If any readers know of one please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
When looking at this chart you’ll note that business students, who are facing a 54 per cent increase, already pay among the highest tuition when compared to program costs, at approximately 30 per cent. Medical, pharmacy and dentistry students at the U of M pay between 10 and 15 per cent. If we are considering whether students are paying their fair share, a case could be made to raise tuition for those faculties, but for business? You’d think that if the provincial government is considering tuition increases for business students, it would also be considering them for arts and science students who also pay around 30 per cent. But hikes for the arts and science are not even on the table.
Again, are business schools special?
Dean Feltham, of the U of M, seems to think so. As reported by the Winnipeg Free Press:
“Business schools are different than other units,” the dean declared. “We need to be able to hire the absolute best faculty members.”
Seriously? The fact that it wants to hire the best faculty is a distinctive feature of the business school? Compared to what? Units that want to hire the worst faculty?
It is true that business professors are more expensive because they have wider options outside the university, but every single faculty could make the argument it needs higher tuition to bring in top talent. It might be a more pronounced issue in the professional schools, but it is not unique to them.
Nor are the other challenges cited by Feltham, outlined on his faculty website, absent in the non-professional faculties of arts and science. In fact, outdated infrastructure and overcrowded classrooms are arguably more of a challenge for more traditional academic programs.
Of course, none of this is of any consequence when determining the price of education. All that matters is who can do the best job at pleading with the government.