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Why Now is the Time to Talk About Tuition

Written by
Maggie Piper
and
April 13, 2021
Why Now is the Time to Talk About Tuition
Image via Youtube

It has now been over two semesters since the majority of Ontario university students’ courses went online, reigniting the age-long debate on tuition, this time against the backdrop of an international health and economic crisis. COVID-19, however, did not usher in tuition cuts for Ontario students, and judging by the responses from universities and the Ontario government, this will remain the case. Students have been left unsatisfied, pointing to the high unemployment rate, increasing debt, and the decreasing quality of remote education. In response, universities released diplomatic statements about the costs of transferring courses and services online which involved new investments in technology. Costs remain high and the future is uncertain for all. Therefore, who should these costs fall on? Is our educational funding model prepared for the next crisis? 

In an interview with Diya Shah, the Research Coordinator for Ontario Public Interest Group (OPIRG), they said that costs should not fall on students. They recently conducted a survey of undergraduate Trent students to find out the impact of COVID-19 on their physical, emotional and financial health. COVID-19, Diya says, has negatively impacted learning for students. All respondents stated that their course load has increased but that the quality of education decreased, requiring “self-learning.” Additionally, most respondents said that the financial impact of COVID-19 has affected them “negatively” or “extremely negatively.” Student unemployment has gone up but their costs have not gone down. This, Diya said, is particularly true for international students whose tuition has been steadily increasing. 

Some universities, including Trent University, have responded to students’ financial concerns by cutting additional fees and providing funding opportunities such as the Student Rapid Relief Fund. However, it would be up to the Ministry of Colleges and Universities to lower domestic tuition. In 2019, under the Ford government, tuition fees were reduced by 10%, resulting in a $680 reduction in tuition for most full-time Trent students. Tuition was then frozen for the 2020-21 academic year. In a written response to Arthur, Vice President and Director of Research Higher Education Strategy Associates (HESA), Jonathan Williams, said that although the Ontario Government cut tuition, “it did so through policies that actually made it harder for lower income students to afford going to university.” Alongside tuition cuts were changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) which shifted funding from grants to loans and cut expenditure to the program. They also scrapped the free tuition program for families earning under $50,000 a year. 

Additionally, while domestic tuition was reduced and then frozen, these policies did not apply to international tuition. Universities have therefore shifted the burden to international students whose tuition was raised by 5% for the 2020-21 academic year at Trent, and is projected to increase once again by 8% for new undergraduate students and 5% for returning, based on the proposed 2021/2022 Operating Budget. This is a common practice, which has resulted in an increasing percentage of universities’ revenue coming from international tuition. According to The Globe and Mail, international students account for nearly 40% of all tuition fees. This can be problematic for both universities when faced with a crisis that prevents international travel and for international students who are paying on average five times that of domestic students. 

Unfortunately, what Laurentian’s insolvency has taught us is that universities depend on tuition, particularly from international students, and a sudden drop in tuition could spell a crisis. According to Trent Communications, a 1% cut in tuition fees, both domestic and international, “would have resulted in a loss of revenue of close to a million dollars.” Therefore, when planning for the 2020-2021 academic year, the Ontario government had to keep this in mind alongside potentially falling enrolment, the costs of adjusting to a COVID-friendly system, including PPE and new technologies, and maintaining facilities and wages. 

When asked through email what the impact of lowering tuition would be, Trent Communications responded, “a further reduction of tuition fee rates, without the ability to offset the lost revenues with enrolment growth or other government funding to compensate, would result in a considerable negative impact to the University’s operating budget.” Furthermore, while student affordability is a priority, so is “perception of quality in market comparison and funding the educational experiences that students expect from Trent as a leading Canadian university.” 

Williams agreed, writing that “universities might have reduced tuition this year, but doing so almost certainly would have amplified the risks that they faced.” Citing Canada as one of the highest public spenders on higher education, Williams argued that in order to cut tuition, Ontario would have to reduce the cost of the system, meaning we “would have to rethink universities as places with significantly less resources at their disposal.” While Canada does pay above the OECD average on post-secondary tuition, there is a lot of variation within Canada. According to HESA’s data, Ontario is the lowest spender on post-secondary education both as a percentage of their provincial Gross Domestic Product and per student. Therefore, Ontario Universities are operating within a high-cost system with the lowest public funding in the country.

This debate is nothing new, but the pandemic has brought to light new considerations and has reinvigorated the conversation. Students are now more aware than ever of the risk and pitfalls of relying on tuition, most significantly, international tuition, during crises. Secondly, we have seen that institutions have the ability to quickly enact radical change when they want. Thirdly, it has been reaffirmed that Canada needs an educated population which can adapt to a changing economy. One case that has highlighted this is the new Personal Support Worker (PSW) program that will be fully funded and free for students starting April 2021. While lowering tuition may seem like a distant hope, It appears that when in crisis, the Ontario government can find a way to fund education.  Which leads me to wonder; why wait for the crisis to implement these radical changes?  We now have renewed evidence on how quickly the economy can change and the need for workers who can adapt to new needs and new ways of working. Should we not start now to change our funding model so that when the next crisis comes we are ready for it? 

When asked about the possibility of tuition reducing in the near future, Williams responded that he “see[s] little or no possibility of that occurring.” Trent University reiterated the sustainability of their funding model, saying that they have “solid foundations in enrolment and good governance, and a positive outlook for the future.” Indebted students who are graduating into an economy characterized by underemployed, however, are not as positive. Their demands for affordable education remain.


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