Reality vs. ideaology in education

Brian Lee Crowley

Michael Conlon of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) might benefit from studying Matthew 7:3, the verse about being too concerned with the dust mote in your neighbour’s eye and neglecting the log in your own.

Mr. Conlon took exception to my recent column extolling the virtues of university tuition fees. Contrary to much huffing and puffing by student groups such as his, there is little evidence that higher fees reduce access to post-secondary education, and the problem of student indebtedness, while real, has been grossly exaggerated.

In his reply, printed in these pages, Mr. Conlon trots out the usual arguments to support the CFS’s view that the best tuition fee is no tuition fee, but he’s wrong right down the line.

According to Conlon, average student debt is now in excess of $25,000. Poppycock. In 2004 Statistics Canada reported 47 percent of students graduating with a first degree do so with no debt whatsoever. Of the remainder, the average university grad has $19,500 in government debt. Nearly one quarter of students graduating with debt have it paid off within 2 years, and only a quarter report difficulty making the payments.  Ninety percent of university graduates who did not pursue further studies were employed two years after graduation at a median salary of $39,000.

Mr. Conlon repeats the canard that rising tuition is an obstacle to low-income people attending university; yet many countries with low or no tuition fees have far worse post-secondary access than Canada, which has allowed tuition fees to rise to more realistic levels. There have been huge increases in enrolment over the same years that fees were rising.

Doubtless we could be doing more to encourage low-income people to go to university, but it is rubbish to say tuition fees prevent them from doing so. Statistics Canada (2003) again: “Individuals from higher income families are much more likely to attend university, but this has been a longstanding tendency and the participation gap between students from the highest and lowest income families has in fact narrowed.” In other words, at the same time as tuition fees have been rising, we have been closing the access gap that already existed when tuition fees were low. Yet Mr. Conlon asserts the opposite.

Higher tuition fees, I noted, can be an instrument of improved access for the less well off when 30 percent of fee increases is set aside for scholarships and bursaries. Deafening silence from Mr. Conlon. I wonder if that’s because I pointed out that this kind of help rewards people for working hard and getting good marks, instead of subsidizing equally the low-income academic star and the hearty-partying child of the wealthy, as low tuition fees do? No take up either on my suggestion that we could solve much of the problem by telescoping four year degrees into three years, thus giving grads an extra year of earnings to finance their studies. Apparently nothing should be permitted to trouble the CFS’s members’ stately progress through the still heavily-subsidized university world.

And while Mr. Conlon dresses up his argument in favour of low tuition as seeking only better access to university for the oppressed of our society, he is strangely silent on one of my main points. It is unfair to tax the average working stiff, who doesn’t have a university degree, or the income that goes with one, in order to subsidize more heavily the future earning power of tomorrow’s elite.

Universally low fees are bad policy because public dollars are scarce. We shouldn’t spend them on something that people will pay for themselves if there are higher priority uses for those dollars. The evidence is that people will pay for their university education, and are quite capable of doing so, although we could certainly further improve student loan programs, by gearing repayment to income, for example.

Primary and secondary education should be free, but not university: it pays people to invest in their university education, while it doesn’t pay them to invest in primary and secondary schooling. So if we have to choose where to put scarce public dollars, primary and secondary education should trump post-secondary spending. And we already spend more of our GDP on education than any other major industrialized country, and yet have one of the worst performances on high school drop-out rates, but an excellent one on university enrolment.

All that guff in the CFS’s article about ideology, and an agenda of tax cuts for the wealthy was a complete red herring. I didn’t make any case for tax cuts, or even for less public spending. I merely pointed out that the evidence didn’t support any of the standard cases for heavy subsidy of tuition, and the little that is accurate in Mr. Conlon’s piece does nothing to undermine that. That log must really smart.
Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (, a public policy think tank in Halifax. E-mail: