The Columbia Journal
P.O. Box 2633 MPO,
Vancouver, British Columbia,
Canada V6B 3W8
- Volume Eight, Number Seven: October 2003
a lose-lose proposition
For the second year in a row, tuition fees for university education are
faster in British Columbia than anywhere else in Canada, with an
increase of 67 per cent in two years. Colleges are implementing even
increases. But is this a problem? Universities and colleges argue that
fees are necessary to fund the demand for new spaces and ensure quality
face of shortfalls in government funding.
A six-year tuition freeze maintained by the previous government
rates that were in fact considerably below the national average. Some
argue that, while recent increases are dramatic, students in British Columbia are now simply catching up to
their counterparts in the
rest of Canada.
Moreover, individuals benefit financially from post-secondary
reports that in 2000, Canadian university graduates earned
approximately 36 per
cent more than high school graduates, and those with post-secondary
certificates earned almost 10 per cent more. Young adults with higher
education also have lower unemployment rates. For most students,
education remains a worthwhile financial investment even with
So why worry about rapidly rising tuition? Given the financial (and
benefits of post-secondary education, shouldn't students be expected to
The quick answer is that they already do. Because post-secondary
to out-earn those with less education, government expenditures on
post-secondary education are more than recouped by the higher level of
taxes graduates eventually pay.
Of course this is not simply as a break-even proposition. Collectively,
businesses and the economy benefit from having a well-educated
our economy has restructured, a greater proportion of job openings
form of post-secondary education. Investment in British Columbia's "human capital"
is crucial for our economic development.
The real question is, do we ask students to pay for their education up
after the fact? In B.C., the trend is clearly toward the former. High
earners have been given substantial tax cuts, direct government funding
post-secondary education is frozen, and students are being asked to
make up the
difference with higher tuition fees.
But from a policy standpoint, there are clear advantages to not asking
individuals to pay the bulk of educational costs while they are still
Most obviously, high up front costs make post-secondary education less
accessible for those with limited financial resources.
Here we can look at the experience elsewhere in Canada
as a preview to the likely
effects of tuition increases in B.C.. While tuition was frozen in British Columbia
much of the '90s, it rose substantially in the rest of the country.
adjusting for inflation, tuition fees paid by Canadian university
arts students rose by 126 per cent
between 1990/91 and 2000/01. Graduate and professional school tuition
rose even more. At the same time, the post-secondary participation rate
flattened for the first time since WWII. Even more troubling, a
appeared between the participation rate of young people from lower
socioeconomic backgrounds and those from high or middle socioeconomic
The fact that professional programs (medicine, law, etc.) are facing
sharper tuition increases also bodes ill for social equity, since these
tend to open doors to the most lucrative careers. While it is possible
wealthy applicants were suddenly more qualified, it is more likely that
high fees shut out students with fewer resources.
Higher tuition fees also mean higher student debt, which may discourage
students from considering fields of study that are perceived to lead to
lucrative careers. In 2000 when the tuition freeze was still in effect,
cent of full-time post-secondary students in B.C. already required
assistance to pay for their education. And the average debt load was
insignificant: Students who completed a four-year program owed an
$17,130. With rising tuition, both the number of students required to
debt, and the size of that debt, will no doubt increase. Who can afford
pursue a degree in literature, social work, or early childhood
knowing that doing so will mean years of crushing loan payments without
likelihood of secure or lucrative employment?
We all benefit from a well-educated citizenry, and it is important that
for post-secondary education be adequate to ensure both accessibility
quality. Asking individual students to fund an ever-increasing share of
post-secondary education costs may ensure well-stocked labs and
if it undermines equality, the price is too high.
In the immediate future, there will likely be no shortage of students
interested in competing for post-secondary spaces in British Columbia,
but rising fees mean that
financial resources rather than merit will increasingly determine who
to enter the competition.
Sylvia Fuller is the Public Interest Researcher at the
Canadian Centre for
Policy Alternatives’ BC Office. www.policyalternatives.ca