Education is the backbone of Canadian society. In thousands of schools across the nation, millions of children, teenagers and young adults will attend some form of learning institution – whether that be a physical classroom, homeschool, or online learning environment – almost daily until the age of 18 (Statistics Canada, 2017).
While criticisms can be made against Canada’s primary and secondary schools systems, the appeal of Canada’s public school system is that access to education of any child, teenager or young adult is not determined by the wealth of their parents, or their own individual merit, but rather they are given the opportunity with an understanding that all children deserve quality education.
Up until postsecondary, education is publically funded. By ensuring equality of opportunity at the most foundational level of education, Canada seemingly makes a commitment towards the education of its young populace with an understanding that the students of today are the working class of tomorrow.
In fact, studies have shown the substantial positive impact of investing into the cognitive and non-cognitive skills of children, one report concluding that school in essence fosters “a dynamic process in which early inputs strongly affect the productivity of later inputs.” (Heckman, 2006).
However, while primary and secondary schools find themselves publicly funded due to this supposed ‘Canadian’ belief in investing into the future our nation, the hypocrisy of the Canadian government’s commitment to students and its lack of desire for intelligent, educated adults is realized in the drastically increasing cost of admission to postsecondary education that is tuition.
As of 2018, in order for a student to attend a postsecondary institution in Canada they must often bear a significant financial burden, a burden that while diversified is mainly encompassed by the overwhelming cost of attending classes; tuition.
Even if one is to temporarily ignore the multitude of other college and university related costs (such as the need for transportation to and from school, money for food and entertainment, and the cost of textbooks and learning resources) and imagine the cost of attending university as solely that of tuition, this cost can range anywhere from $2,000 to $22,000 depending on the degree program and province (Statistics Canada, 2017).
And while a tuition in the thousands of dollars range may not be considered a lot of money for those who find themselves not worrying for money, even the lower end of the tuition range can lead to those without much income steering clear of higher education forever.
Through an analysis of the recent history of tuition costs in Canada, accompanied by thorough reasoning supported by peer reviewed articles and an overview of the current aid-based approach to the financial struggles of students, I will argue that the Canadian government should pay for the tuition of all Canadian students, regardless of age, academic prowess, financial standing or chosen program.
It is my belief that as Canada has committed to the education of youth from years 6-18, they should continue to do so as these same youth enter the transitional period of higher education.
A Brief History of Tuition in Canada
Tuition as a concept has an interesting albeit frustrating history in Canada. Before World War 2, university was largely reserved for those with considerable wealth (An Overview of Tuition Fees in Canada, 2013). As tuition fees were often astronomical due to the absence of funding from the federal government, those from middle and lower classes were restricted from accessing university on the basis of their wealth.
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However, following the war, and largely due to the attempt at reintegrating soldiers into society, there was a influx of government funding for universities that drastically decreased tuition and led to an equally substantial increase in university enrollments; much of these enrollments consisting of the middle and lower class, students who would never have been able to attend university if not for the decrease in tuition (An Overview of Tuition Fees in Canada, 2013).
This trend of increased educational support and subsidies would continue into the 1970s, and as some provinces such as Newfoundland and Labrador removed tuition entirely the country seemed to be leaning towards tuition-free postsecondary education nationwide (An Overview of Tuition Fees in Canada, 2013).
But in the 1980s, the downward spiral towards exponentially increasing tuition began. Funding was cut, and “Between the early 1980s and the early 1990s, average tuition fees at Canadian universities more than doubled. Average tuition fees at colleges, excluding those in Québec, more than tripled.” (An Overview of Tuition Fees in Canada, 2013) leading to students bearing the burden of an inflated university cost.
Where the increased social assistance of the post-World War 2 Welfare era had encouraged those from all walks of life to engage in higher learning, the cuts towards funding from the 1980s onwards has led to tuition costs that seem to be increasing at rates which propose a reversion to the limited and inherently exclusionary education landscape of the pre-WW2 era (An Overview of Tuition Fees in Canada, 2013).
Tuition as it stands now continues to climb at rates far beyond that of inflation, and studies have begun to show that both enrollment and completion of degree programs is negatively correlated with increasing tuition costs (An Overview of Tuition Fees in Canada, 2013).
The Current Literature in Relation to Tuition
While tuition itself is not technically a barrier to receiving a university education in Canada, as tuition increases the resulting decline in enrollment as well persistence reveals how financial inequality negatively impacts the equality of opportunity that is purported in Canada’s publicly funded primary and secondary schools’ systems.
One study in 1994 on the influence of student aid concluded that regardless of intervention, tuition charge always have a negative relation to persistence (John, 1994). Another study spanning nearly 40 years found that “higher tuition levels in the 1990s did reduce the probability of university participation by persons aged 17, 18 or 19 relative to a province-specific trend increase in university participation” (Johnson, 2005).
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While several factors account for the decision whether to enroll in university, this study as well as others, including a highlights the significance of economic factors, including tuition. Reflecting on this study, and somewhat of a common-sense notion, as the cost of schooling increases past that of inflation those who are left out of attending university are by and large those who can no longer afford it. Akin to what is said in the CAUT Almanac of Postsecondary Education in Canada, it appears that “The burden of rising tuition fees has weighed far more heavily on the budgets of the poorest Canadians” (Canadian Association of Teachers, 2013).
As tuition rises minimally every year it’s unlikely one student who could afford it the year prior would be unable to the following year, over a span of 5 to 10 years with a gradual but moderate increase in tuition above rates of inflation, it become likely that a student at the lowest income level capable of affording university would be unable to afford tuition in 2018 even if he could afford it in 2008.
In another report on rising tuition in both Canada and the United States, the author explains that “The results of most studies are found to lie in the very close range of -0.03 to -0.05 percentage point decline in the participation rates among 18-24-year old’s to a $1000 tuition increase” (Fortin, 2004).
In essence, tuition increasing at a higher rate than inflation shaves off the portion of the student populace that can afford university the least, and likely discourages them from applying due to financial restraints (Johnson, 2005).
Impacts of Financial Aid
There are many approaches the Canadian government has used and continues to use to this day in effort to counteract the absurdness that is post-secondary tuition. Programs like OSAP in Ontario, and private and public scholarships have been created with the intention of lessening the financial burden of students, however, studies have revealed a negative relationship between educational aid – especially loan aid – and University persistence that implies that simply giving aid may not really help in the long run (McElroy, 2004).
The report found that while the intention of aid was to enable students to be able to afford the costs of university, including tuition, that the greater the aid usually resulted in worse degree persistence. The Ontario Student Assistance Program serves as a distributor of aid throughout Ontario – notably where tuition rates have rose the most drastically (Canadian Association of University Teachers, 2013) – and often uses a approach that offers loan and grant money in tandem to students.
However, in reflection of McElroy’s finding I find it probable that OSAP enables tuition hikes as it gives students money on loan that they not only won’t be able to effectively payback, but that will negatively impact their educational career overall.
As previously mentioned, students in university already bear a high financial burden without tuition, and if tuition costs continue on the route they are now Canada will begin to restrict access of the lower class to further education because there will simply be no way to afford it. Raising tuition is not the answer – it leads to lower enrollment (Fortin, 2004), less overall persistence in university (John, 1994) and is directly targeted at often marginalized groups, particularly the poor (Canadian Association of University Teachers, 2013).
Back when the Canadian government dropped tuition substantially and oriented themselves with a social assistance mindset, university enrollment increased, and it has been documented extensively that a university educated populace is a thriving one (An Overview of Tuition Fees in Canada, 2013).
In reflection of; the roller coaster history of tuition in Canada, the current over-inflated upwards trajectory tuition cost, the current financial aid centered approach towards financial inequality found at postsecondary institutions, and the alarming realization that Canada’s universities are moving towards a merit-based system that discriminates based on wealth, I find it imperative that the Canadian government move towards drastically reducing tuition on a nationwide level (including a tuition freeze) and eventually eliminate the concept entirely.
An abolition of tuition is the only way Canada can ensure equality of educational opportunity for all – regardless of income level or background – and in turn strengthen our nation through an educated populace.
- An Overview of Tuition Fees in Canada (Vol. Fall 2003, Rep.). (n.d.). doi:http://dev.cfswpnetwork.ca/wp-content/uploads/sites/71/2015/07/Fact-Sheet-fees-2013-Nov-En.pdf
- Canadian Association of University Teachers. (2013-2014). The CAUT Almanac of Postsecondary Education in Canada. Retrieved from https://www.caut.ca/docs/default-source/almanac/almanac_2013-2014_print_finalE20A5E5CA0EA6529968D1CAF.pdf?sfvrsn=2
- Fortin, N. M. (2004). Rising Tuition and Supply Constraints: Explaining Canada-U.S. Differences in University Enrollment Rates (Working paper). University of British Columbia. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.568.2135&rep=rep1&type=pdf
- Heckman, J. J. (2006). Skill Formation and the Economics of Investing in Disadvantaged Children. Science, 312(5782), 1900-1902. doi:10.1126/science.1128898
- John, E. P., Andrieu, S., Oescher, J., & Starkey, J. B. (1994). The influence of student aid on within-year persistence by traditional college-age students in four-year colleges. Research in Higher Education, 35(4), 455-480. doi:10.1007/bf02496383
- Johnson, D. R., & Rahman, F. T. (2005). The Role of Economic Factors, Including the Level of Tuition, in Individual University Participation Decisions in Canada. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 35(3). Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ771033.
- McElroy, L. (2004). Student Aid and University Persistence : Does Debt Matter? Retrieved from https://contactpoint.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/student_aid_eng.pdf.
- Statistics Canada. (2017, September 6). Tuition fees for degree programs, 2017/2018 (Rep.). Retrieved https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/170906/dq170906b-eng.htm
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