Canada's University System Ailing

AS A RULE OF THUMB, it's rarely a good idea for governments to play Hood Robin: taking money from the poor so they can spend it on the rich. Yet that's what the government of Quebec is doing as it sets university tuition fees.

Canada's University System Ailing

AS A RULE OF THUMB, it's rarely a good idea for governments to play Hood Robin: taking money from the poor so they can spend it on the rich. Yet that's what the government of Quebec is doing as it sets university tuition fees.

Like his counterparts across the country, Pierre Reid, Quebec's minister of education, needs more money in his colleges and universities. Like governments across the country, Quebec's has such a hard time staying out of deficit that it's limited in its ability to inject money from general revenues into its universities. So Reid has transformed $100 million worth of student bursaries, which students didn't have to repay, into loans, which they do.

Now try to follow his logic as he explains himself. "We made a societal choice, a political choice too, which is to have tuition fees frozen," Reid told La Presse. "Of course, passing the bill along to others would have meant increasing tuition fees and that is absolutely out of the question."

Well. Understand what's happening here. A government that wants to get money into its universities, but hasn't enough money lying around to do the job itself, has called on students to fill the gap. But instead of taking from the students who could most easily afford it - the ones who could have paid far more than Quebec's fees, the lowest in Canada at $1,862 in 2003-04 - he's piling debt on those who can least afford it.

There has to be a better way. Provincial governments are struggling to find it. In the battle to keep their university systems competitive, they're considering whether low tuition rates are really the best way to maintain both accessibility and quality. The province that's about to become the centre of that debate is Ontario.

Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty announced a two-year freeze on tuition rates in April. But the McGuinty government has also appointed a committee, led by former NDP premier Bob RAE, to look into tuition and accessibility. The Rae review is scheduled to release a discussion paper in September and a final report in January. But a member of Rae's committee told Maclean's it will "unambiguously argue that the system does need more money" and that, while all Ontarians, through their government, must invest more heavily in post-secondary education, "tuition is going to have to go up."

Not surprisingly, student groups are upset by rumours that the Rae review will give McGuinty a pretext for raising fees. And it's absolutely true that a ballooning student debt load can be a burden for graduates and a deterrent for low-income students who are wondering whether to go to university. But a flurry of recent studies suggests Canada's absurdly complex and dysfunctional maze of student-assistance programs could be made simpler and far more beneficial to the least-affluent students; and that student debt isn't the only problem, nor necessarily even the worst problem, facing a post-secondary education system that's struggling to keep pace with the rest of the world.

A study released on Aug. 17 by the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation looked at tuition policy in four Canadian provinces and four countries - Ireland, the United Kingdom, Australia and the U.S. It suggests that many governments simply can't keep up with burgeoning student populations and the increasing cost of educating each student. Some hit a wall. Gary Doer's Manitoba government cut and then froze tuition after it was elected in 1999. But by 2001, as student populations grew, Manitoba found it couldn't keep spending as much on each student. With less money coming in and more students to teach, spending per student declined by 7.9 per cent and 4.4 per cent in 2001-02 and 2002-03.

Contrast that with what happened in England after Tony Blair introduced tuition fees in 1997. English universities were in nasty shape: between 1980 and 1997, the number of students had doubled, but spending per student had dropped by 40 per cent. Implementing tuition fees did nothing to slow the growth of the university population, but suddenly those students were bringing more money into the system, improving the quality of the university experience.

The Millennium Scholarship Foundation study suggests it's extremely hard to link tuition increases to enrolment levels: since the late 1990s, enrolment has grown in most jurisdictions, whether tuition costs are stable, rising or falling. A university education is just so valuable that students are willing to pay a lot more to get one. But of course not all of them can. While governments may be justified in taking more money from students who can pay, social justice also demands improvements to assistance for students who can't. A new study from the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP) suggests that's more urgent in Canada than in most places.

Education is a provincial responsibility, but the federal government also intervenes heavily in student assistance. That patchwork of provincial and federal student-aid programs results in a Canadian system that "stands out even at the international level in terms of its complexity," the IRPP writes. That's a barrier to accessibility in itself: students who can't even figure out where to get money are less likely even to try.

The IRPP study suggests a simpler system of grants and loans, with the loans repaid from tax revenue after graduation. The Rae review will have other suggestions. What would be helpful is a federal-provincial meeting on the question. Health care isn't the only issue demanding attention from Canada's first ministers. It's time to get our universities, creaking under the weight of new demands, back onto the Canadian agenda.

See also EDUCATION, HIGHER.

Maclean's September 6, 2004