Tuition: Canada could learn from England

Hikes reduce applications but aren’t unfair to the poor

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Cambridge University by ben.gallagher/Flickr

Cambridge University by ben.gallagher/Flickr

There’s an endless debate in Canada about whether higher tuition causes fewer students to attend university. Those who fight tuition increases argue that high prices keep poorer students out.

New evidence from England suggests otherwise.

But before that, consider the hypothetical argument. Tina, a high school senior from a low-income family will apply to engineering if it’s going to cost her $2,000 per year, but won’t if it costs her $10,000. Her friend Paul, whose parents are wealthy, can afford to attend either way. So if tuition rises, Paul attends, graduates and gets a high-paying job. Tina goes to work at Zellers instead. The cycle of poverty continues.

It’s a good argument. It was also the ammunition used by those (mosty left-wingers) who fought tuition increases in Quebec by shutting down classes and marching in the streets.

But fiscal conservatives, who are happy for individuals to pay more of the bill, ask: “where’s the proof?” They point out that jurisdictions with higher tuition don’t have less enrollment; they have more. The Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a think tank, reiterated this idea in today’s Province:

There is very little evidence that cut-rate tuition causes significantly more young people to go to university. A simple comparison between Ontario and Quebec illustrates the point. In the past academic year, the average tuition for Quebec’s undergraduates was $2,400. Average tuition in Ontario was $6,640, among the highest in the country. Ontario, however, has significantly higher university participation rates and attainment rates for young adults than does Quebec. The university attainment rate in Quebec for 25 to 34 year olds currently stands at 32 per cent, compared to 37 per cent in “high” tuition Ontario.

That too is a good argument. But how can both sides be right?

Here’s one theory. Perhaps tuition simply hasn’t reached the point in places like Ontario where high school graduates experience so much sticker shock that they don’t bother to enroll. Perhaps $6,640 per year in exchange for a lifetime of higher incomes looks like a a good deal to most of them.

But what if tuition rose higher? What if it rose a lot higher?

We now have an answer. Three years ago, tuition in England was almost nothing. Thanks to austerity, universities may now charge up to $14,200. Many have chosen to set fees there this fall. The result is a 10 per cent drop in applications. Students are clearly sensitive to the price.

But it’s a bit more complicated than the anti-tuition movement suggests. As Marni Soupcoff of the National Post was quick to point out, applications dropped less among students from poor families than those from middle and higher income families. Soupcoff concludes that’s a good thing:

There will be just as many “disadvantaged” students [graduating in the U.K.]. The only thing that has changed is that a greater number of students are self-selecting out of the admissions process because they don’t view a university education as worth the higher price. I cannot see that this is anything but a reasonable—and desirable—market correction.

The Telegraph‘s education editor attributes the middle and upper class students’ higher likelihood to skip out on university to the fact that lower income students get so much financial support.

That is where Canadians should pay attention. The protesters in Quebec say that tuition, which will be $3,800 after seven years of hikes, will prevent the poor from attending. But poor students in England aren’t any more scared off university by high tuition because they have financial support.

The tuition increases in Quebec have been accompanied by promises of more loans and grants from the beginning. The government made good on those promises last week.

Premier Jean Charest’s intention all along was to make those who can afford it—the middle and upper classes—pay a little more money so that its universities can improve quality without piling more burden on taxpayers. The evidence from England suggests it was a fair approach.