Fall 2005 - Volume 8 Number 4
|The Students’ Perspective on Tuition Fees
On October 7, 2005, federal Human Resources Minister Belinda Stronach announced her government’s intention to release $1.5 billion to reduce tuition fees and expand access to up-front grants. This announcement comes less than four months after the House of Commons adopted an amendment to the federal budget to allocate $4.6 billion in additional funding for such things as the environment, higher education, child care and other vital social services. The amendment itself was negotiated by federal New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton back in May in return for his party’s support to keep the current Parliament alive.
Almost immediately after the federal budget amendment was inked, the Progressive Conservative government of Nova Scotia received all-party support for legislation that will ensure that any federal budget amendment money for post-secondary education realized by that province will be used to reduce tuition fees and create up-front grants. At the time, only Nova Scotia had higher tuition fees than Ontario.
In Ontario, the McGuinty government has taken important steps forward in restoring health to Ontario’s colleges and universities. In April 2004, the Ontario government announced funding for the first year of a tuition fee freeze and tuition fees were frozen again for the 2005-2006 academic year. The May 2005 Ontario Budget committed an additional $6.2 billion to colleges and universities over the next five years. In addition, Premier McGuinty announced the partial restoration of up-front grants for low-income first and second year students.
This critical reinvestment, combined with the federal budget amendment’s injection of $1.5 billion to reduce tuition fees, has placed Ontario in the uniquely opportune situation to turn the corner on the old method of allowing tuition fees to rise as a mechanism for funding colleges and universities.
Last July, the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities began a consultation with key post-secondary education stakeholders to discuss the future of tuition fees. During this consultation, the Canadian Federation of Students has reviewed the impact of financial barriers on expanding access to higher education. The Federation also documented the high level of support for freezing and reducing tuition fees. Over the past five years, polling has consistently demonstrated that over 80% of Ontarians believe that tuition fees are already too high. This support continues despite the fact that tuition fees have been frozen for two years.
The evidence shows that an increasing number of families understand the importance of acquiring a college or university education and that a growing number of families have genuine concerns about the affordability of higher education.
Statistics Canada has reported that tuition fees in Ontario increased at four times the rate of inflation over the past 15 years. In order to compensate for this massive increase, tuition fees would have to be frozen until the year 2043.
In college programmes where tuition fees were deregulated in 1998, some fees skyrocketed by over 800%. Take computer animation, for example. At $1,400 per year in 1998, today students pay approximately $11,000 per year for the same programme.
Disappointingly, before the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities consultation process was completed, Premier Dalton McGuinty announced that tuition fees would be increasing in September 2006. And he did not rule-out the full de-regulation of tuition fees.
On the day of his announcement, Premier Dalton McGuinty said to students: “I know you would like me to promise tuition fees will never go up again, and, in an ideal world, I would love to be able to do that...”
Yet, just one week later, the federal government re-announced the $1.5 billion in federal funding to reduce tuition fees. There is no reason now for Premier McGuinty to fall back on the old, unpopular and inequitable method of allowing tuition fees to rise as a means of funding college education. In fact, with the approximately $600 million that would comprise Ontario’s share of the federal money, Premier McGuinty now has the means to do what he would like to docommit to extending the current tuition fee freeze.
Increasing tuition fees is the least efficient method of funding colleges and universities. Each increase in tuition fees has the effect of making every other area of student financial assistance more expensive since tuition fee hikes ensure that more students than before are forced onto student aid. In addition, those students who were already reliant on student loans are forced to borrow even more money than they did previously. Ultimately, any investment in grants for students is clawed back through tuition fee hikes.
In September, Statistics Canada released a report demonstrating that modest-income families are being pushed out of higher education as a result of high tuition fees. While targeted grants and student aid for those students from the absolute lowest end of the income scale has partially mitigated the impact of rising tuition fees, the study shows that modest and middle-income families are much worse off.
According to Statistics Canada, between 1991 and 1998 the real income and buying-power of Canadians with the lowest 20% of after-tax income declined. Moreover, recent immigrants to Canada have experienced a 24% decline in real dollar earnings over the past 30 years. At the same time, the present generation faces the unrelenting demand of the market to acquire some level of post-secondary education simply as a basic pre-requisite for employment.
The average earnings of a college graduate is just under $40,000 per year. Yet statistics show that those in this income bracket are the very students who are disappearing from the class lists of high fee programmes.
Premier McGuinty took some critical first steps to improve access to and the quality of Ontario’s college and universities. But to stop now and return to the failed formula of allowing tuition fees to rise is to undo the good work that he just began. The time is right to extend the current tuition fee freeze and engage in a meaningful dialogue about reducing tuition fees over the long term.
Jesse Greener is the Ontario Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students. The Federation represents the interests of over 250,000 college and university students in Ontario. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (416) 925-3825
The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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