So, here’s the problem: Canadian governments are mostly broke. Even the ones that didn’t look broke a couple of months ago (Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland) are now very definitely broke (especially Newfoundland). There’s no money for PSE. Everybody knows that.
So, equally, everyone knows that the only way institutions are going to avoid a crunch is either by turning themselves into finishing schools for the Asian middle class, or by charging domestic students higher tuition fees. No one genuinely thinks the former is a sensible long-term solution, and yet that’s the way we’re heading because Canadian families and the politicians who represent them are resistant to the idea of a rise in fees.
To be clear, resistance does not arise because anyone really thinks fees deter access. Even the dopiest politician knows that participation rates today are over 50% higher than they were 20 years ago when nominal tuition was about half what it is now (certain student groups are indeed that dopey, but that’s another story). No, the reason people don’t want more fees is because too many people think that what universities and colleges are offering isn’t worth what they’re charging.
This is of course insane because, as we know, Canadians, on aggregate, are paying Net Zero Tuition for post-secondary education. We have $7.2 billion going out every year in various forms of aid – exactly equal to what universities and colleges charge in tuition to domestic students – and apparently no one notices. The focus is exclusively on the sticker price, never on the net price, which in many cases is negative. This shouldn’t be a surprise, given the opacity of our student aid system. We prevent students from working out their student aid package before they apply, and then we hand out as much of our aid as possible at the back end where no one will notice it.
It’s madness. And it has to change. We need to make it a lot more obvious what a great deal people are getting. We need to make it so that when governments spend money to make it easier for people to go to school, the people being helped actually realize they are being helped.
This is going to require coordination. Our confusing system is a product of the fact that many different players (feds, provinces, institutions) designed it so that it met their own administrative needs and desires for visibility, not the needs of students. We need all of them to agree to make it less complicated, more predictable, and more visible. That means, above all, ditching tax credits and either turning them into (hopefully targeted) grants or transferring them to institutions in return for a reduction in tuition.
Can’t be done, you say, because governments like to take credit for tax expenditures? Tosh. It’s abundantly clear that the public has no idea the credits even exist, so governments could hardly do worse than what they do now. Besides, there’s precedent to show it’s good politics: in 2012, Quebec ditched some tax credits in order to pay for improved student aid, and back in 1999, Manitoba explicitly ditched a refundable tax credit to pay for a tuition roll-back (meaning the roll-back cost the government nothing, and students were in fact no better off at the end of the day, but boy did the NDP make hay out of that one).
So it’s doable. But someone has to get the provinces and the feds to sit down together to make them do it. The only people who can do this are the institutions: specifically, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) and Colleges and Institutes Canada (CIC). Only they have the clout to get the provinces and the federal government in the same room to hammer out a deal. And it’s eminently in their interest to do so. Until Canadians rediscover what a fantastically good deal they actually have in their higher education system, the likelihood of more funds heading their way is pretty slight.