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Tiering up over tuition fees

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Photo: Chris/flickr

This fall, tuition fees in Canada are set to increase by 2.8 per cent to a weighted average of $6,373. That's a smaller increase than in previous years, but (as always) averages can mask some important details: in this case, the plethora of options provinces are pursuing to address the optics of rising tuition fees, and what that looks like on paper (and on balance sheets). (Note that these figures do not include additional compulsory fees which are much more deregulated and can add anywhere from $250 to $1,000 to the total annual cost, depending on the university you attend and the program in which you're enrolled.)

So here's a recap of Statistics Canada's 2016-17 undergraduate tuition fee estimates -- the annotated version.

1. At $2,759, Newfoundland and Labrador posts the lowest fees once again, although there are rumours that an increase may be in the works for Memorial University as the provincial government's 2016 budget cut funding to MUN and cancelled the previous government's decision to replace provincial student loans with a needs-based grants system. (Of additional note: tuition fees in Newfoundland and Labrador for both in- and out-of-province students are comparable to Quebec's legendarily low in-province tuition fees.)

2. Quebec's average weighted tuition fees continue their approximately 2 per cent annual increase and come in at $2,851 this year. However, it's worth noting that this is an average of the (much lower) in-province fees (around $2,300) and the much higher out-of-province fees (an additional $160 or so per credit) for a total that's even more than the Canadian average.

3. Once again, Manitoba posts an annual inflation-based increase to fees which edge upwards to $4,058.

4. Similarly, B.C.'s fees continue to increase by an average 2.5 per cent to $5,534.

5. After Alberta's previous Conservative government froze tuition fees for a year, in 2015-16 the NDP government increased public funding and froze fees for an additional two years; as a result, fees, at $5,750, have barely budged since 2013-14.

6. A member of the two-tier tuition club (with a series of bursaries most in-province P.E.I. students qualify for), Prince Edward Island's average weighted fees continue to climb by 2.6 per cent to $6,288.

7. This year, New Brunswick's new plan for "free" tuition for students from families making less than $60,000 began. However, after being frozen in 2015-16, tuition fees increased by nearly 5 per cent to $6,682.

8. With a modest (read: small) bursary for in-province students, Saskatchewan's average tuition fees continued to climb by nearly 3 per cent to $7,177, by far the highest in the Western provinces.

9. After Nova Scotia eliminated its small grant for out-of-province students (effectively deregulating fees for a significant chunk of the province's university population), tuition fees rose by the largest percentage in the country -- up by 6 per cent to $7,218, more than twice the national average, taking over the 9th place position held last year by Saskatchewan.

10. Finally, Ontario stubbornly holds on to the highest tuition fees in the country at $8,114. That said, the 30 per cent Off Tuition Grant does reduce fees for those who qualify by $1,900 this year. Next year -- when the 3 per cent cap on tuition fee increases is set to expire -- the province will implement its "free" tuition plan for students from families making less than $50,000.

Trends:

Is the annual increase in fees slowing?

Although the national average percentage increase is slowing (in part because of a couple of fee freezes and other provinces tying fee increases to inflation rates), the policies pursued by various provinces have resulted in some increases that wildly eclipse the 2.8 per cent figure. Most notable are Nova Scotia (as a result of de facto deregulation of tuition fees for out-of-province students) and New Brunswick (in spite of a much touted plan to eliminate tuition fees for families making less than $60,000).

What's driving the increase in fees?

Declining levels of provincial funding as a percentage of university operating revenue. Nationally, public funding as a percentage of university operating revenues declined from 77 per cent in 1992 to 55 per cent in 2012 while tuition fees as a percentage of university operating revenues increased from 20 per cent to 37 per cent over the same period.

How have provinces responded to public pressure regarding affordability of a university education?

Several have implemented what amounts to a two-tier fee structure in order to appease their respective provincial electorates: Quebec, Nova Scotia, P.E.I., Ontario and Saskatchewan. The vast majority have implemented a cap (often tied to inflation) on annual increases. Two (Ontario next year, and New Brunswick this year) have announced a "free tuition" policy for students whose family income is under a certain amount. (See CCPA's report, What's the Difference? Taking stock of provincial tuition fee policies for more details.)

What's the federal government's role?

Collective levels of student debt continue to increase (as of 2012, Statistics Canada estimated total student loan debt at over $28 billion [CANSIM table 205-0002 as referenced in the Alternative Federal Budget 2016]). Budget 2016 focused on moderate increases to federal student grants and making debt more "manageable" (the loan repayment threshold was increased to $25K) which is a brief respite but in the long-term just kicks the student debt can further down the road.

In general, when it comes to tuition fees and the cost of a university education, the focus remains on "managing affordability." This sidesteps the question of whether or not the current level of public investment in education is sufficient -- and it's clearly not, as fees continue to rise as a direct result of declining levels of provincial investment. It also, conveniently, eliminates the concept of or commitment to universality from the discussion, as the fees that are posted increasingly resemble only a suggestion of what students might pay, based on their income, age, destination and location. Governments need to ask themselves: is downloading more debt onto students and their families -- particularly during a time of workforce precarity and an insecure economy -- a productive, equitable, or sustainable policy to pursue?

Erika Shaker is Director of Education and Outreach at the CCPA. Follow Erika on Twitter @ErikaShaker.

Photo: Chris/flickr

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