HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Better Thinking about Access and Tuition

Hey, have you heard about what’s going on in Quebec and Ontario?

Turns out one province is way ahead of the other in terms of university participation rates. And in terms of attainment rates among 25-34 year olds. Also, it turns out one province has tuition almost three times higher than the other. And higher rates of indebtedness. And, among those who borrow, much higher levels of indebtedness at graduation (almost 60 percent higher, in fact).

The thing is, the relationship isn’t the one most people think it is.

That’s right, the province with higher tuition and higher debt has – by some distance – the better outcomes. And it’s not just total numbers; Ontario’s also substantially more successful than Quebec at pulling in low-income students.

Undoubtedly, there are some structural factors behind this. For one thing, low-income students in Ontario are much likelier to be recent immigrants (or children thereof); and as work by my colleagues Ross Finnie and Richard Mueller has shown, these youth are far more likely than non-immigrant youth to attend PSE. Parental education, another major determinant of educational outcomes, is also on average higher in Ontario (a third-generation legacy of low education levels in pre-Quiet Revolution Quebec). And finally, student aid is also in some ways much more generous in Ontario, even if more of it comes in the form of loans.

But then, on the other hand, listing these factors is just a complicated way of saying IT’S NOT ABOUT TUITION! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, CAN WE ALL SHUT UP ABOUT TUITION AND GET BACK TO STUFF THAT REALLY MATTERS?

There’s lots of blame to go around for the perpetuation of this preposterous meme, but if we have to single out anyone for egregiousness on this file, the Ontario Liberals probably deserve it most. Through eight years of patient work, they’d created an excellent, progressive student aid structure that underpinned the country’s most accessible system of higher education. Then, instead of taking credit for this magnificent achievement, they came up with a hare-brained tuition reduction scheme that was not only implemented with all the grace and subtlety of a Michael Bay movie, but which deliberately undercut the government’s own signal achievement, which was to prove that good outcomes don’t depend on low tuition.

Ernest Rutherford once said “Gentlemen, we have run out of money; it is time to start thinking.” Well, Canadian higher education is rapidly approaching that point. The sooner all our governments stop pandering to students and middle-class voters with tuition freezes and rebates and start actually thinking about the real social and cultural determinants of access, the better we’ll all be.

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One Response to Better Thinking about Access and Tuition

  1. The last sentence is the most interesting. The idea that low tuition increases access for low income students and therefore is good seems to make sense. It defines the current debate in Quebec. Yet, your data suggests the relationship is not so obvious. Your last sentence asks the key question but it does not suggest the answer. I look forward to more information that does begin to answer that question in future posts.

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