There tends to be a lot of talk this time of year about how high tuition fees have become. This year, the debate has been especially loud, because it is an election issue in more than one province.
And that was before Statistics Canada revealed today that tuition is up 4.3 per cent over last year to an average of $5,366 for undergraduates. Inflation is estimated at 2.7 per cent, which means tuition costs are growing faster than most prices.
The obvious problem with high fees is that no one likes to pay them. And when the issue is raised by politicians, it’s usually raised in terms of access: the economically disadvantaged won’t or can’t seek higher education if the price tag is too high. Research has suggested that children from lower-income families are less likely to go to university than richer students, but why that’s the case is a complex mix of social and economic factors, actual cost being just one, according to this study by Statistics Canada. As conservative commentators have noted, even now where tuition is highest, participation rates remain relatively high even among low-income students.
But in all the talk about fees and access, there are at least three issues that routinely get overlooked, and, I would argue, should each have a bigger part in the public debate.
First, tuition numbers don’t usually factor in the economic conditions of the various provinces. In 2009, for example, Nova Scotia students paid an average of $5,752 for a year’s worth of tuition, while Ontario students paid a bit more: $5,985. In that same year, though, the average Ontario family brought in nearly 12 per cent more income than their Bluenose brothers. So, measured as a percentage of household income, Nova Scotians were still paying more, about 9.2 per cent of annual household income, compared to about 8.6 per cent in Ontario. When you consider a place like Cape Breton, which is economically disadvantaged even by Nova Scotia standards, the problem is even more stark. Newfoundlanders paid just 4.4 per cent.
Second, higher tuition payments tend to mean higher debt loads upon graduation and debt loads put pressure on graduates to take jobs that pay and pay right away. Nothing wrong with that, except that there might be other things recent university graduates might do that could be more socially valuable than joining the corporate rat race. A student with a massive debt load may be less likely to volunteer in Africa for a year, or to take a low-paying job at an important NGO, or to take some time off to write the great Canadian novel.
Finally, high tuitions encourage students to think about how they are going to pay off their loans, and thus they tend to look for programs that seem to promise a clear path to a job. As such, high fees are a gradual but relentless assault on the liberal arts and sciences. I’m not saying that the liberal arts and sciences don’t lead to jobs, but rather that the move from degree to job in those programs seems less obvious to nervous students, and those students will increasingly shy away from programs they see as riskier. My own august institution may be the canary in the coal mine, since tuition fees are high here and job prospects are slim: enrolments are robust and growing in professional programs like business and nursing while dropping steadily in the arts.
It’s heartening to see that tuition fees remain part of the debate over higher education in Canada. But for the debate to be fruitful, we have to consider all the implications—not just the impact on bank statements.
Todd Pettigrew (PhD) is an Associate Professor of English at Cape Breton University.