Tuition hikes don’t add up

Dr. Michael Conlon

It is hardly surprising that Brian Crowley of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies is calling for higher tuition fees (Sept. 8 column). The so-called Fraser Institute of the East has the same answer to every social, economic, cultural and regional problem: lower taxes for the wealthy, higher user fees, and increased privatization. However, his argument is a useful catalogue of the misperceptions and sloppy statistics that accompany arguments for higher fees.

Crowley argues that in the face of fee hikes, students are “flocking to universities across the land.” What he leaves out is that while there has been enrolment growth in the last decade, the growth in participation of low-income Canadians lags well behind. During a decade of massive fee hikes, the participation rates of poor Canadians has all but stagnated. This stagnant participation rate must be put in the context of a system in which, according to Statistics Canada, the top quarter of income earners are twice as likely to attend university as those in the bottom quarter. Of particular concern for Nova Scotians is the fact that those from high-income families in rural areas are 5.6 times more likely to attend university than their low-income neighbours.

On the issue of student debt, Crowley distorts the issue. While it is true that 59 per cent of students in the Maritimes require loans to attend university, those students come to the system with the fewest resources. During the past 10 years of rapid fee hikes, student debt has climbed from an average of $8,000 in 1990 to current levels in excess of $25,000. Crowley would do well to explain that his plan for higher fees would force those at the bottom end of the economic ladder further into debt.

Next, and perhaps the most disingenuous part of Crowley’s argument, is
the notion that because those with a post-secondary education earn higher wages after graduation than those with no post-secondary education, tuition fees should double or even triple. Crowley chooses to ignore the fact that in a progressive tax system such as Canada’s, those who make higher incomes as a result of a university education also pay the most for it through taxes. It is not surprising that Crowley would gloss over this argument, as the raison d’etre of his organization is to gut the progressive tax system and ensure that those who make the most pay as little tax as possible.

Given that the modest equality of opportunity in Nova Scotia is the product of a progressive tax system, it would appear that Crowley is so blinded by his own ideology that he seeks to help undermine this framework with misleading opinion pieces about higher tuition fees. For reasons known only to the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, saddling the poorest among us with $10,000 tuition fees and cutting the taxes of the wealthiest Nova Scotians is now a “progressive” idea. With friends like that, low- and middle-income Nova Scotians don’t need enemies.

Finally, Crowley argues that it makes sense to offer primary and secondary education for free because of the benefit of “higher levels of civic participation and economic efficiency.” I agree with him. However, he either ignores or is unaware of the veritable encyclopedia of data that demonstrates the exact same benefits of a post-secondary education. To cite but two examples, research demonstrates conclusively that civic participation and health outcomes are both increased by post-secondary education participation. Such outcomes are difficult to measure in monetary terms, but the social and civic benefits are obvious.

More important, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada estimates that 75 per cent of new jobs will require at least two years of post-secondary education. Therein lies the most compelling argument of all for more public funding to ensure equality of opportunity for all Nova Scotians. Without substantial reinvestment in post-secondary education and lower tuition fees, we run the risk of widening the gap between those energized by the hope of a post-secondary education and those consigned to the economic and social margins.

In summary, a look at the real face of post-secondary education in Canada shows a disturbing gap in participation rates. Massive fees hikes and sharp increases in student debt will further shut low- and middle-income Nova Scotians out of the system. The greatest period of growth in participation by low- and middle-income Canadians came during a period of relatively low fees and student debt and comparatively high levels of public funding. This is clearly the way forward to increase access and promote opportunity for all. Only an economic analysis that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing would want to turn the clock back to the period in which access to post-secondary education in Canada was determined by the size of your wallet. Dr. Michael Conlon is director of research for the Canadian Federation of Students.