On March 5, Cape Breton University president David Wheeler, CBU student union president Brandon Ellis and faculty association president Scott Stewart signed a letter urging the leaders of the major federal political parties to develop a strategy in conjunction with the provinces to eliminate tuition for post-secondary education. The three presidents are also urging their counterparts at universities throughout Canada to sign onto the letter.

In the letter, the three presidents state, “We believe that such a system would prove cheaper, simpler and fairer than the current debt-inducing model.” Wheeler, Ellis and Stewart argue that the $6 billion required to cover all tuition costs would be a modest investment for the federal government, noting in comparison that Ottawa relinquished $12 billion annually in revenues when it reduced the GST by two per cent. 

The campaign calls for progressive tax increases on the wealthy to cover the costs of providing tuition-free university, arguing that richer Canadians would not be getting a free ride since their higher tax rates would mean that they would contribute more than poorer Canadians to the costs of post-secondary education.

The share of university operating costs covered by government funding has steadily declined over the past two decades, falling from 82 per cent in 1992 to 57 percent in 2012. As a consequence, average annual tuition costs have risen from $1,464 to $5,959 over the same period. 

Not surprisingly, rising tuition has resulted in higher levels of student debt. The average student debt in Nova Scotia upon graduation is now $28,000, according to the Canadian Federation of Students. And while the province’s Liberal government eliminated the interest on provincial student loans last year, it only amounts to $800 over the lifetime of a $5,600 loan.

“We are convinced that this course of action is now essential in order to address the inequity and inefficiency of student debt in Canada,” the letter states. “And we are equally convinced by the experiences of more than forty countries — including the majority of the G-20 – that tax-funded tuition is the most effective option available to promote social mobility and future economic vitality in an increasingly competitive world.”

According to the new Zero Tuition Canada campaign’s website, eliminating tuition and providing needs-based grants to cover other costs associated with attending university would eliminate student debt. As a result, upon entering the workforce, graduates would have more disposable income that would act as a stimulus to the overall economy. 

As Wheeler, Ellis and Stewart note in their letter, “We believe that the Canadian public, apprised of the costs and merits of the case, will endorse such a step as the most significant social advance since the introduction of free national health care.”

The three presidents are calling on all those who would like Canada to move towards tuition-free post-secondary education to support the campaign by signing a petition at change.org.


Garry Leech is an independent journalist and author of several books including Capitalism: A Structural Genocide (Zed Books, 2012). He is also a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Cape Breton University.