Education News – Free tuition comes with a price: think tank

WATERLOO, Ont. (CUP) — McMaster University student Meena Bhardwaj says She’s looking for a part-time job to help her pay for school next year. Her parents were able to cover the bulk of her tuition and residence fees this past year, but Bhardwaj knows the cost of a university education in Ontario is climbing.

And like the thousands of students that took part in the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) National Day of Action on February 7, Bhardwaj is not happy.

?I really don’t see where the money is going,? she said, who paid five per cent more for her tuition this year than she would have in 2005?06. ?It’s a public system, but they’re making it very hard for the average person to go to university. Only middle class students will be able to afford it.?

As tuition fees jumped at universities in Ontario this past year, so has student protest. Back in October 2006, the CFS staged a mock funeral outside of Queen’s Park in Toronto to ?mourn the death of affordable post-secondary education.? Last week, students at the York, Toronto, and Laurentian campuses camped out in the sub-freezing winter temperatures in a campaign dubbed ?Freeze for the Fees.?

Maria Rodrigues, a Toronto-area school board trustee, fears high tuition rates will discourage more people from attending college or university.

?Many high school students actually chose to drop out because high tuition fees have already put the dream of college or university out of their minds,? Rodrigues said in a statement released by the CFS.

When compared to other post-secondary school systems in Europe, the United States, Japan, and Australia, the evidence suggests Canada is among the more expensive places to get an education.

According to the Global Higher Education Report, a study released by the Educational Policy Institute (EPI)?an international education think tank?in 2005, Canada ranked 11th out of the 16 jurisdictions that were analyzed in regards to overall affordability.

The report examined total education costs and factored in cost-of-living expenses and tax expenditures. Coming ahead of Canada were Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, Austria, Germany, France, and Italy. The U.S., U.K., New Zealand, and Japan were the only countries with less affordable post-secondary education.

Heavy government subsidization is the key reason why these countries outperformed Canada in affordability. Most of the countries do not charge tuition fees and if they do, the rates are low.

The education costs in Finland in 2005, for example, were slightly less than C$400. In Belgium, education costs were a little over C$2,000. In Canada, those same costs were tallied at over $5,000.

However, Alex Usher, vice-president of EPI Canada, says while European countries may provide more affordable post-secondary education, the accessibility is compromised.

?Yeah, free tuition looks good, but only if you can get into a system That’s smaller,? he said.

Many European countries, according to Usher, invest so much money into subsidizing tuition fees that the money gets spread among far fewer people. Only the best and the brightest are accepted, which excludes large numbers of ?B and B-minus level students.?

Usher argues that since wealthy students have more resources (private schools, tutoring) at their disposal to help them get the top grades, the free education system actually benefits well-off families more than lower-income ones.

While Canada performed poorly in the affordability rankings, the country did well in factors of accessibility, such as participation rate and educational equity. The flip side of higher tuition fees, according to Usher, is being able to create room for more students.

?British Columbia is your best example of this,? said Usher. ?Tuition is way, way up [since the end of the freeze in 2002] but enrolment is up higher than it was during the tuition freeze.?

Making things tuition-free, he says, would cost $3 billion to $5 billion a year, or the equivalent of a national day-care program. ?And I think, given the choice, Canadians wouldn’t give up the national day-care program.?

For cash-strapped students looking enviably at their European counterparts, Usher says there is a misconception that lower tuition rates increase accessibility, especially for those coming from lower-income families.

?For low-income students, their rise in tuition has been zero,? Usher said. ?You have to remember that your first year of university, if your family’s income is under $35,000, your tuition is free [through the Canada Access Grants and the Canada-Ontario Student Loan program]. Ontario actually pays part of the second year’s tuition as well.?

Usher says that too much attention is focused on limiting tuition fees when the more efficient solution would be to target student grants and non-repayable aid like tax credits to low-income students.

Ontario’s high enrolment numbers are also an indication that students are not being scared away by the higher sticker price of a undergraduate degree.

?Even if we had free tuition, it wouldn’t really shift the social proportion [to be more inclusive],? said Usher. ?It’s the same argument people make when they don’t like tax increases. Just because it makes some people worse off, and higher tuition does make some students worse off, It’s not going to influence behaviour.?

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