Five reasons why you should support a move to low tuition fees in Canada

June 6, 2012

Much of the media coverage of the Quebec student protests has dismissed the protestors as spoiled children trying to protect their unfair privilege (Quebec has the lowest tuition fees in the country).

The vast majority of today’s university students do in fact come from relatively well-off families. But rather than weakening their position, this supports the protestors’ claims that we have a serious problem with access to education — a problem that would only be worsened by tuition hikes.

Low tuition fees are not an unfair entitlement for students; they are sensible public policy. Here are five reasons why we should support a move to low tuition fees everywhere in Canada.

1. Making university education affordable would allow more Canadians to access this key tool for social mobility.

The evidence is clear: university education is a route to considerably higher lifetime earnings and the financial benefit of having a university degree has increased over the last 20 years. Yet, in a time of sharply rising income inequality, this ladder to a better life is only accessible to some Canadians.

2. Financial barriers to education impact Canada’s economic wellbeing.

An educated and highly skilled workforce is a crucial element for the continued economic and social development of Canada. But when the ability to pay becomes a deciding factor in who gets education and who doesn’t, our country loses the chance to benefit from the skills and capabilities of many of its citizens. And because financial barriers to education reduce social mobility, inequality will increase, with all the associated social and economic costs to society, including increased health and justice system costs and worsening social tension.

3. Higher education is increasingly becoming a standard job requirement.

Advanced education increasingly affects people’s ability to compete in the labour market, the types of jobs they obtain, and the incomes they are able to earn. In BC, it is estimated that over three quarters of new jobs will require some form of post-secondary education. The figures are similar for Canada as a whole. This is why it is now more important than ever to ensure that all Canadians have access to advanced education.

Yet, instead of increasing financial support for higher education, governments have steadily withdrawn from funding universities. Government funding has fallen from 84% to 58% of university operating budgets over the last 30 years.

It’s time for Canada to increase our public investment in higher education and reduce the burden that high tuition fees impose on students and their families. We already provide elementary and secondary education to all Canadians free of charge. Why not extend our public education system to cover post-secondary education?

4. Student loans don’t make up for high tuition fees.

We know this because students from lower income backgrounds continue to be underrepresented in universities despite the availability of student loans. Instead of improving access to education, student loans result in high debt loads for those youth from lower and modest income families who manage to make it to university against the odds. The average student debt at graduation from a Bachelor’s degree program was $27,000 in 2009.

This is fundamentally inequitable, because it means that students who take out loans end up paying considerably more for the same education (through interest on their debt) than their peers whose parents can afford the tuition fees up front. In addition, Statistics Canada analysis shows that student debt continues to affect Canadians’ finances long after graduation with borrowers less likely to have savings and investments, and less likely to own their homes.

5. Education is a great investment for our public dollars: students repay the full cost of their education through taxes over their working careers.

The conventional argument that students are heavily subsidized because tuition fees do not cover the full costs of their education ignores an important way in which students repay the cost of their education: through higher taxes after graduation. In a recent study published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, I quantified these additional taxes paid by university graduates in BC. It turns out that when these tax payments are added up over the course of graduates’ careers, BC university students as a group pay more than double what their education costs. The research is clear: it’s economically feasible and much more fair to reduce the financial barriers to education by lowering tuition to nominal levels.

Increasing public funding for higher education is not only a sound financial investment for our public dollars — it’s an investment in a healthier, better-educated and more equitable society.

Iglika Ivanova is an economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

and author of Paid in Full: Who Pays for University Education in BC?