Tuition hikes for everyone! Or not

When raising tuition, it seems business programs are the favoured target


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 carsonjerema@gmail.com.)

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.


Tuition hikes for everyone! Or not

  1. Carson,

    Try doing some research next time before writing an article for a prestigious publication such as Macleans. The programs that were allowed to raise tuition were those that had the support of their students.

    Medical school at UC is 3 years, not 4 as at UA so no, you cannot compare the two schools. Again, you need to do some research before putting your name to an article such as this. I am disappointed in the quality of the article and that Macleans would allow it’s brand to be attached to this.

    Based on your logic, every school should raise it’s tuition to compete with the other comparable institutions. Guess what-the average tuition will then be raised and that gives programs a reason to raise them again? Where does it end? Looking forward to your addendum/comment regarding the article.

  2. In British Columbia, tuition inflation has been pegged at the annual rate of economic inflation (two per cent or less) for the last several years.

    This came after several years of double-digit tuition increases, which were in turn preceded by a complete tuition and fee freeze for five years in which the provincial government tried to, but in the end could not, make up the difference. But so far, tuition for all programs has been held to no more than inflation, no matter how much it costs to deliver it (and the costs of delivering programs, and indeed of running universities and colleges, are increasing a lot faster than 2% a year – this is rather more due to the financial obligations they have to sick, elderly and retiring faculty than to hiring on new blood and brains).

    I would guess business and professional programs get this kind of treatment because
    1) professional programs are usually extremely expensive to deliver; and this has to be paid for somehow;
    2) business programs are inhabited by business people, who believe in charging what the market will bear;
    3) these programs will still be full of students anyway, because they’ve done the math of balancing a present expense against greater future earnings (this is the kind of optimistic arithmetic that keeps stock markets, casinos and online MBA schools open).

    As for the why of the question, of course the political side overwhelms the utilitarian – but that doesn’t mean governments pick numbers out of the air, either. The five-year tuition freeze I alluded to above was a blatant attempt to buy youth votes – it didn’t work (as it turned out, among other things young people generally don’t vote) and probably did lasting harm to the post-secondary system. The way Quebec has run its PSE system for many years now is one that defies common sense, and everything, but everything in that province is political. But the cracks are showing.

  3. Jan,

    Thanks for your comment.

    The reasoning I cited for tuition increases in some faculties and not others was the reasoning provided by the Edmonton Journal, which I linked to. I also confirmed this with the department of Advanced Education. So, even if students were supportive of the increases in some faculties, the justification provided by the government was based on a comparison of tuition at other schools, and that the government was convinced tuition was already too low when tuition was reduced and capped.

    As for the length of the Calgary program versus the Alberta program that is a fair point, but the other two programs I mention, UBC and U of T, are both four-years. Given that U of A is one of the “Big 5” is it not reasonable to compare the U of A to them?

    You write: “Based on your logic, every school should raise it’s tuition to compete with the other comparable institutions.”

    That is not my logic, that is the logic the Alberta government used to approve tuition increases. I was merely pointing out that different standards appear to have been applied.

  4. Carson really does need to consult a map; to consider Calgary a “short drive” from Edmonton is interesting thinking, and should make one question the rest of the article.

  5. To be clear, the reason students in pharmacy, engineering and business had their tuition hiked is because the leaders of their student associations sent letters to Advanced Education in support of them. Read the official press release for confirmation that student support played the major role in the decision. So, in answer to the question you pose in your article, no, business schools are not special. Your questions would be better posed to the students in the faculties who supported increases in tuition for the students who come after them.

    Regarding this “Big 5” business. This isn’t the United States where quality of institutions varies widely between the hundreds or thousands of post-secondary institutions across the country. There are maybe twenty medical schools in Canada and the quality of medical education should be comparable between ALL of them, even the ones in Quebec.

  6. jan wrote:
    There are maybe twenty medical schools in Canada and the quality of medical education should be comparable between ALL of them, even the ones in Quebec.

    There are 17 medical schools in Canada. How nice that you think that even in lowly Quebec, medical education should be the same quality as in the rest of Canada. How very English of you!

  7. I always find it curious when universities or provinces use the “we’re bringing it in line with over there” excuse to increase tuition. It just seems like a lazy way to make a decision – instead of figuring out what the optimal level is, we’re just going to do the average of everyone else. Furthermore, it just seems wierd that you almost never hear of reducing tuition to get to the average, and it’s also wierd that tuition is one of the few things where this happens. You would never hear a restauranteur say “for our breakfast special, we have the second best prices in town. We need to bring them up to the average”, especially not to his customers.

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