HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Tuition

September 07

Tuition Fees in Canada, 2017-18

So, yesterday was the annual tuition fee data dump from Statscan.  Probably worth it to go over the data just a bit to see what the story is.

The data everyone likes to focus on is the “average undergraduate tuition fee by province”.  This year, it looks like this (note that “fees” here do not include ancillary fees, only tuition proper):

Figure 1: Average Domestic Undergraduate Tuition Fees by Province, 2017-18

The other number that people always look out for is the one that shows increases over time.  For reasons that defy easy comprehension, Statscan always publishes these in nominal rather than real dollars which always leads to inflated estimates of tuition increases.  So I’ve put all the figures in 2017 real dollars in Figure 2:

Figure 2: Average Domestic Undergraduate Tuition Fees, Canada, 2006-07 to 2017-18

 

So, accounting for inflation, the increase in tuition fees is 25% over 11 years, or an average of 1.8% per annum.

Now keep in mind that what is being averaged here is tuition fees across all domestic undergraduate students, not fees across all undergraduate programs.  So where a program has one set of fees for in-province students and another for out-of-province students (e.g. Quebec, Nova Scotia) the two get averaged.  Also, even if there is no change in posted tuition, if more students enrol in more expensive programs (e.g. engineering) and fewer in cheaper ones (e.g. Arts) then that will still mean an increase in average tuition.

And tuition does vary a heck of a lot by field of study even at the undergraduate level.  This is actually a nuance of Canadian tuition fee data which is not well understood outside the country, where variable tuition by field tends to be quite rare. Here’s the national average by field:

Figure 3: Undergraduate Average Tuition by Selected Field of Study, 2017-18

Note here that the presence of a few very expensive professional disciplines drags up the average substantially.  In humanities and social sciences, average tuition fees are 12-15% lower than the national average, and in education it is 29% lower.  This is one of those cases where the average price is somewhat higher than the median price – something to keep in mind when thinking about affordability.

There was some other interesting data in yesterday’s release with respect to domestic graduate student fees (up 1.8% in nominal terms, vs. 3.1% for undergraduate fees) and for international students fees (surprise surprise – up 6.1% in nominal dollars), but the above covers the main points of interest.  Nothing terribly exciting, but worth re-capping and putting into context nonetheless. 

September 05

Did CIBC Really Just Call for Lower Tuition?

Last week, HuffPost ran a story highlighting a newsletter from CIBC Economics about higher education.  It was actually a pretty meandering letter (CIBC Economics pieces on higher education are usually notable for their interesting use of data and somewhat shallow understanding of actual policy – here’s an earlier example).  The newsletter touched on a number of issues around educational supply and demand, but what HuffPost glommed on to was what a point about tuition in STEM programs and led with the headline “CIBC argues against “Free Market” education, calls for lower tuition”.

So, true or false?  Is CIBC joining CFS on the barricades?

Well, sort of.  What the newsletter actually said, after noting with approval that enrolments in STEM programs were rising (indicating, in their view, greater student responsiveness to economic signals) and that tuition fees are rising faster in high-demand programs such as Engineering, was:

(This) price appreciation can slow or even derail the positive momentum observed in recent enrolment trends. If Canada wants to have more graduates in STEM or any high-paying field, the country needs to work to make it affordable. This type of pricing only exacerbates already ingrained income inequalities across the country.

So, two issues here.  The first is that contrary to what HuffPost implied, CIBC is not blanket anti-tuition fees.  It’s against higher tuition fees in STEM programs (particularly Engineering) because it likes STEM programs (particularly Engineering) and is under the impression that lower tuition will attract more students to the fields.  HuffPost’s headline was thus misleading at best.

But there’s a second issue, too; namely, that CIBC’s argument is pretty much bollocks. Here are four reasons why:

First: it’s flat-out wrong about the nature of the problem.  The problem of filling more engineering spots was always about supply, never about demand.  Engineering is an expensive discipline and ramping up the number of spots is expensive and in the absence of new money from government, funds basically have to be wrung out of the system through various types of program/admin savings and retirements.  That takes time.  And it’s this, more than changes in student demand, that account for the lag in enrolments.  I know CIBC is used to markets that clear, but higher education is not one of those markets and they shouldn’t analyse it as if it were.

Second: Because adding Engineering spots costs money, fees are part of the solution, not part of the problem.  If you reduced fees in Engineering, I guarantee you there would be fewer spots.  And how would that help?

Third: there’s zero evidence that increasing fees, in the context of a fairly generous student aid system where grants are significant and loans are easily available, have had or will have any noticeable effect on demand. Indeed, as the paper itself notes, these programs are growing in demand as fees rise.  It’s a Yogi Berra-esque “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded” kind of argument.

Fourth: it’s wrong on equity grounds.  These are high-demand, high-reward occupations.  Why in God’s name would we want to increase private rates of return on these, when demand for spaces in these programs are already in excess of supply?  That would just increase windfall gains to the future wealthy.

In short: HuffPost exaggerated its headline.  But CIBC did make a suggestion about reducing tuition, one that suggests they don’t pay a whole lot of attention to the actual underlying dynamics of higher education beyond throwing a stat-heavy newsletter together on the subject once a year.

Do better, guys.

August 31

Free Tuition Developments

One major trend of the last couple of years in global higher education has been the arrival of a wave of “free tuition” policies in jurisdictions that formerly charged them and which – in some cases – have substantial private higher education sectors.  But announcing free tuition is one thing: actually pulling it off is another.  Let’s take a quick look-in at how things are playing out in various parts of the world.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte (Luzon’s answer to Donald Trump) declared education at all public universities free in the state budget earlier this year, and the policy came into effect this fall.  Of course, this only affects a minority of students because public universities only educate about 45% of Filipino students: the rest attend one of the country’s 1500 or so private universities.  And fees were never that high to begin with (in the region of $150/year at most state colleges).

But what’s brilliant about the Philippines “free tuition” program is the packaging.  The budget for implementation is only P8 billion ($200 million Canadian or $160 million US), which is considerably short of what is needed to cover all students.  So to make up for it, they are i) putting an academic progress filter on the program (i.e. fail too many courses and you have to start paying fees) and more importantly ii) putting an income filter on it as well.  But, intriguingly, the law doesn’t say “targeted aid for the poor”; rather, what it says is “as a rule, fees shall be abolished” but that universities “shall create a mechanism to enable students with the financial capacity to pay…to voluntarily opt out of the tuition and other school fees subsidy or make a contribution to the school.”  In practice, what this means is that the funds will be distributed to institutions who in turn will provide fee waivers to students in order of financial need (a slightly more detailed explanation is available in this article from the Philippines Star).  Too rich?  No subsidy.  But the actual cut-off line will vary somewhat from institution to institution.

(I know that sounds weird, but running student aid through institutions rather than a national government is actually pretty common in southeast Asia).

Still, the government is sufficiently worried about extra demand that it is reinstating an entrance exam to keep growth in numbers down.  Which of course does make you wonder why they put free tuition in place in the first, if not to increase participation.

Over in Chile, President Bachelet has moved to expand the free tuition subsidy (“gratuidad”) to students from the sixth income decile starting this coming February; previously it was only available to students from the lowest five deciles.  In theory, the government is meant to nudge this up to the seventh decile by 2020, but the likelihood that the left will still be in power by then is pretty slim: polls right now have former centre-right president Sebastian Pinera well out in front, and he’s already more or less said he’s not committed to anything above the 50% threshold.

In the US, two states – New York and Oregon – brought in “free tuition” programs last year.  Oregon’s was a free community college plan, much like Tennessee’s; New York’s was a “targeted free tuition” system for 4-year colleges, which looked much like those in Ontario and New Brunswick only less well-targeted.  Now, both are slightly off the rails because of the weird way that legislation and appropriation happen separately in the US.  Despite “enacting” free tuition, neither state actually set aside enough money to actually make it work properly.  In Oregon, the short-fall means roughly 20% of students who should have been eligible will not receive benefits.  In New York, the demand for the new “Excelsior” scholarships exceeded the budgeted amount by a factor of three.  The best one can say for this situation is, as my colleague Robert Kelchen says, is that this is an unrivalled opportunity to test the “disappointment effect” in student aid.

Meanwhile, back in Canada, our two targeted free tuition programs – in Ontario and New Brunswick – seem to have started without much of a hitch.  For the moment, at least, we’re leading the pack in terms of coherent implementation.  Let’s hope it stays that way.

July 10

England has lost its damn mind over tuition fees

Ok, I said I wouldn’t write over the summer unless someone of importance said something titanically stupid.  Andrew Adonis, architect of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s education policies crossed that line on Friday with a – yes – titanically stupid column about tuition fees, so here I am.

First, some background.  Prior to 1998, the UK had a free tuition system.  From 1998 to 2006 it had a system of varying tuition fees – £1,000 if your family made over £30,000 per year, and then a sliding scale down to zero if family income fell below £20,000.  From 2006 to 2012, it was a flat £3,000 (rising with inflation) accompanied by the (re)-introduction of means-based grants for living costs.  Loans were available to all to cover fees, meaning no one need pay a cent up-front (“free at the point of delivery” in the UK parlance), and said loans were recovered via the tax system as in Australia and New Zealand.  Required repayment rates were a modest 9% of income above the threshold, which started at £10K in 1998 and rose to £15K in 2006.  Loans not repaid within a given time frame were to be forgiven.

(If you’re trying to work out what those numbers mean in Canadian dollars, for most of the past 15 years PPP equivalent has been pretty close to £1 =C$1.70, so just multiply everything in this piece by 1.7 and you’ve got it).

Shortly after the 2006 went into effect, the bottom fell out of financial markets, and one of the worst-hit countries was the UK.  Anticipating that major reductions in public spending were going to be necessary, then-PM Gordon Brown convened a commission to look at university finances and tuition fees which, conveniently, would not report until after the 2010 election.  The resulting Browne (not the PM, another guy) Review became the basis for the post-election Tory-Liberal coalition government’s policy of i) reducing government funding to universities by over 40%, including a total elimination of per-student subsidies for teaching in the social sciences and humanities and ii) allowing universities to raise fees to up to an eye-watering £9,000 per year.

What this meant was that between loans for tuition and loans for living costs in in ludicrously-pricey London, “debt” for a three-year degree could quite easily end up at over £50,000.  But to “compensate”, loans were made more generous with the repayment threshold jumped from £15,000 to £21,000 while retaining the debt forgiveness policy.  In other words, the government increased student debt massively while simultaneously it harder to recover (see here for a comparison of repayment burdens in UK vs. other countries).

The results of this were predictable.  Though student “debts” rose enormously, these debts were in some sense purely nominal; most predictions showed that something like three-quarters of graduates would never repay the debts and hence the government would assume their balances.  What most students were signing on to was therefore not a loan but a marginal tax of 9% on income over £21,000 lasting 30 years; that is, a so-called graduate tax.  The problem was that no one knew in advance whether they were signing on for a graduate tax or a loan – that would only become apparent a decade or two into one’s working career.  Oh, and government would eventually end up picking up about half the total cost of loans.

Remarkably, this proved unpopular among students.  So much so that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to abolish fees altogether – a move which while wiping away some obvious policy lunacy would also be a massive gift to the future wealthy – was widely credited with a big upswing in the youth vote which in turn was widely credited with denying Agent Teresa May a majority in last month’s election’s, despite the fact that Corbyn’s stance on Europe and Brexit is diametrically opposed to theirs.  And now that Corbyn no longer looks vulnerable to an internal coup, various Blairite Labour types are now busy re-writing the history of the last two decades to justify a 180 on a fees policy they either wrote or agreed with in spirit.

Which is where this Andrew Adonis article in last Friday’s Guardian comes in.  Adonis helped draft the ’98 and ’06 fee policy changes, and he would surely have agreed with the direction (if not the full extent) of the post-Browne Review changes.  Yet now, apparently, fees must be abolished.  Why?  Because the beautiful Labour vision, in which allowing tuition fees to rise “up to” £3,000 (up to £9,000 post-Browne) would create a functioning market in which institutions would compete like mad and multiple price-quality points would emerge was stymied by evil university vice-chancellors (i.e. Presidents) who “formed a cartel” in which all of them charged the maximum, thus stifling competition.

This is a strange and bewildering argument for two reasons.  First, in none of the three fee hikes was quality-enhancing competition a primary policy goal.  System expansion (and to a lesser extent, increasing per-student resources) was the primary goal in ’98 and ‘06; income maintenance in the face of swingeing public cutbacks was the goal in ’12.  The policies succeeded very well in both instance without damaging access for lower-income students.  Inter-institutional competition might have been a secondary goal in 2006 and a rationalization (though not a rationale) in ’12, but never the central aim.  To advocate dismantling policies because they didn’t meet some secondary goal is…bizarre.

Second, and more importantly, WHAT IN GOD’S NAME DID YOU THINK WAS GOING TO HAPPEN WHEN THE FEE CAP WAS LIFTED?  Higher education is a Veblen good, for God’s sake: in the absence of obvious measures of quality (rankings notwithstanding), consumers tend to judge the quality of education on things like cost and so cost and demand are not negatively correlated – in fact in some ways, higher costs drive higher demand (look at George Washington University’s fee policy and admission rates over the past couple of decades if you don’t believe me).  For Adonis’ competitive fantasy to have taken place, there would have had to have been institutions eager to signal that they might have lower quality by pricing significantly below the rest of the herd -and what university would want to do that?  Perhaps Adonis should name the institutions that he thought should have adopted a Walmart pricing policy.

Now to be fair, Adonis is hardly alone in his delusions about higher education competition.  England is one of those rare places where the term “neo-liberal higher education policy” actually makes some kind of sense.  There is a touching faith among policy makers there that a genuinely functioning competitive market is just one set of transparency tools around the corner.  League tables and key information sets didn’t create a functioning market in which quality is rewarded with greater pricing power?  Well, then, we’ll create the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), in which government will decide what quality is, and create a fee regime which will gradually create differentiated pricing by fiat.  Take that, Thorstein Veblen!

But the difference between Adonis and the TEF crowd is that the latter isn’t trying to roll back two decades of policy to ingratiate themselves with Jeremy Corbyn.  They aren’t running away from a policy which has been mostly effective just because they’ve suddenly realized students don’t like fees and debt (which of course is nonsense – they don’t pay up-front fees and for the most part they sign up to a 9% graduate tax/contribution not “debt” per se).

Does English fee policy need changing?  Of course.  The 2012 changes and subsequent amendments were as dumb as a bag of hammers.  But it’s a hell of a leap from that to “time to abolish tuition”, at least for someone with pretensions to being taken seriously in policy debates.  If that’s not something Adonis aspires to any more, that’s his business.  But the fact that this step is being considered seriously not just by Labour but by Tories as well should be worrying to everyone.  It means reasonable policy making is being thrown out the window for reasons of currying short-term favour with specific voter demographics.

In this policy field as in so many others, England appears to be losing its mind.

 

May 31

The Financial Landscape of Canadian Universities

I was updating some old charts on sources of university income for a presentation last week and they are kind of interesting so I thought y’all might want to have a look.

The first is the total income of Canadian universities over the past 35 years, in constant dollars.  What it shows is that total income has increased in a relatively steady fashion ever since the late 1990s (the slight spikiness of the last decade has more to do with uneven endowment income than anything else).  Total income for 2014-15 was around $35 billion, or more than double the figure of twenty years earlier, even after accounting for inflation.

Figure 1: Total Income of Canadian Universities, 1979-80 to 2014-15, in $2013

May 31 Fig 1 Total Income of Cdn Unis

But of course, student numbers have increased substantially over the past two decades.  In the late 1990s, we had about 650,000 university FTEs; in 2014-15 those numbers had increased to nearly 1.1 million.  So if we calculate income on a per-student basis the gains are less impressive.

Figure 2: Per-student income of Canadian Universities, 1979-80 to 2014-15, in $2013

May 31 Fig 2 Per student income

Income per student stayed roughly stable through the 80s and 90 at around $23,000 per student per year in constant dollars.  Income then began to rise sharply.  For most of the last decade the figure has hovered around $31,000, or about one-third higher than it was in the 1990s.

Now, this flies in the face of conventional wisdom.  Cutbacks are everywhere, right?  So how can there be so much money in the system?  Well, a few reasons.  The main one is that there actually hasn’t been much an increase in dollars available for operating funding.  On a per-student basis, government funds are now lower than they have been at any point this century, and if research funds are removed from the equation, then they are more or less lower than they have been at any point since these records began.  What has offset this is a rise in income generated from tuition (more on that in a second) and income from other sources (which is not the same as net income, so not all of this is available to the academic enterprise).

Now, a quick peek back at figure 1 shows that the big trend of the last few years has been a decrease in government funding (the blue area) being offset by an increase in student contributions (the green area).  That’s a real trend: after a decade of student contributions sitting at around the 20% mark, they have increased in the last few years to 25%.

Figure 3: Tuition Fees as a Percentage of Total Income, Canadian Universities, 1979-80 to 2014-15

May 31 Fig 3 Tuition Fees as Percentage

But before anyone goes around yelling about the evils of tuition fees, it’s worth remembering that tuition fee increases for domestic students over the past few years have been roughly inflation plus one percent.  The increases in tuition income per student, however, have been rising at about inflation plus three per cent.  How is this possible?  Simple.  International students and – to a lesser extent – increased enrolment in higher tuition programs.

This is the very simple lesson of the past half-decade.  Governments can allow public funding to erode quietly, keep domestic tuition relatively stable and institutions can make up for it all by enrolling more and more international students.  So far, it’s worked as a strategy, even if no one owns up to it actually being a conscious strategy.  But there are limits to this policy and eventually, something has to give.

It would be helpful if we started having out-loud grown-up discussions about what those limits are, and what we do when we hit them, rather than playing it all out in silence with nods and winks.  But that implies maturity among our politicians.  Based on their recent performances, I have my doubts.

May 24

The Rock

No, not Dwayne Johnson (though You’re Welcome is indeed a great song).   I’m talking about Newfoundland (and Labrador), where the Minister of Advanced Education, Gerry Byrne, has decided to pick a fight with Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN).

Why, you ask?  Good question.

MUN is in a position somewhat like the one the University of Alberta faced a couple of years ago, only worse.  Up to about 2012, a decade of hydrocarbon-fueled provincial budgets made MUN a pretty fun place.  The provincial government drenched the institution in money, which allowed it not only to keep tuition low (this year, $2,759 vs. Canadian average of $6,373), but also allow MUN to receive over $40,000 per FTE student, higher than the average in any other province (note this is not to say that MUN’s income per student was higher than that of any other Canadian institution.  It wasn’t.  But it made the top ten).

But of course, we all know the oil boom party came to a halt a few years ago.  Since then, it’s been cut, cut, cut – as I noted back here last week, provincial spending on post-secondary education has fallen by a remarkable 21% over the last six years). Some may want to accuse the provincial government of savagery in its cuts, but to be honest I’m not sure what choice they had.  Outside of OPEC countries, few jurisdictions’ budgets were as geared to the price of oil as Newfoundland’s, so when the price started to fall, across-the-board cuts were pretty much inevitable and there wasn’t much prospect of higher education being spared much pain.

So, MUN had to face cuts.  But the problem with cutting budgets at a university is a little thing called tenure.  Salaries of tenured faculty eat up about 30% of most Canadian universities’ budgets.  Throw in benefits and you’re up to around 40%.  If someone tells you to cut 20% the budget, but 40% of the budget is essentially untouchable, that means the rest of the budget has to be cut by about one-third.  And I don’t care what business you’re in, that stings.

But wait a minute, you say.  Doesn’t Newfoundland have the country’s lowest tuition, both for domestic ($2,759 vs. national average of $6,373) and international ($9,360 vs. $23,589) students?  Actually, aren’t international students only paying about 40% of the cost of their education?  After all, students there can afford a fee increase: only Manitoba has a smaller percentage of students receiving student aid.  There must be some flexibility there, right?

Well, as it turns out, no.  That would of course be the right thing to do, but the government doesn’t want to take the blame for raising tuition for middle-class students (though it doesn’t seem to have a problem cutting student aid to the poorest by 78%).  It flirted with allowing MUN to raise fees last year, but the university could see through that trap and refused.  This year, it ran out of room to manoeuvre and so proposed a set of fee increases which fell harder on out-of-province and international students than they did on domestic ones.  Cue grumbling about administrative waste, inefficiency, and high administrative salaries, not just from the usual suspects internally but from the Minister himself, who clearly wants to pose as a defender of students against the mean old administrators.  First, he says, MUN needs to wring out every bit of efficiency possible out of current structure – to that end, he says, the university needs to go back to “zero-based budgeting”.

Now, I don’t know any specifics about MUN, but it’s a fair guess that after ten years of having a firehose of money pointed at them by the provincial government, the institution had probably grown flabby in some areas.  It would be against human nature if it hadn’t.   But here’s the thing about university overspending: when it happens, it’s like blowing up a balloon.  The extra funds don’t cluster in one area, they are spread pretty evenly throughout the institution; like a balloon, the institution looks the same only bigger.  Did you really need to hire six people in student services instead of five?  Did you really need that extra tenure line in economics?  Could our profs maybe make 5% less than those at Dalhousie rather than exactly the same?  So fair play to the Minister – there are almost certainly efficiency gains to be had.

But note that most of the “extra costs” listed above are salary costs.  That’s normal because most universities spend 70%+  of their money on salaries.  And a lot of these salaries are covered by collective bargaining agreements which are pretty tightly worded to prevent job losses   How do you zero-base budget in that environment?  You can’t.  At best you wait for people to retire and then restructure around those who are left.  The Minister knows all of this perfectly well and that the idea of zero-based budgeting in this context is as dumb as a bag of hammers, yet for some reason he pretends otherwise.

It’s not that MUN doesn’t need to keep a lid on costs and restructure.  It does, and is already doing it.  But without breaking collective agreements (is that what the minister wants?  he should say so), cuts of this magnitude are very difficult to implement.  What MUN needs is some breathing space, something that a rise in fees would provide.  The Minister should stop trying to pick fights with the university, and try working constructively with it to mitigate the problems that the 21% cut his government’s cuts have created.

 

May 19

Free Tuition, Sea of Japan Edition

To Tokyo, where the ruling Liberal Democrats are considering adopting a proposal from a small right-wing party (Nippon Ishin no Kai – roughly, Japan Restoration Party) to enshrine a constitutional right to free tuition.  This is not, it is safe to say, because of any principled attachment to accessible education – the party opposed free secondary education (which the Democratic Party implemented during its brief, mostly hapless, stint in government which ended five years ago) as recently as a couple of years ago, calling it “an unprincipled policy to buy votes”.

So what’s behind Shinzo Abe’s new ploy?  Two things.  First, Prime Minister Abe’s attempts to kick-start Japan’s long-stalled economy have had only middling success.  Free tuition would in effect be another Keynesian stimulus, freeing lots of family savings to be spent on other things.  Now, technically that doesn’t require a constitutional change, but some observers think Abe would not be able to get a free-tuition proposal worth 5 trillion Yen (C$60 billion) through a normal budgetary approval process; a constitutional amendment would make the spending automatic, thus circumventing the budget process.

But the bigger reason is much more Machiavellian.  Abe’s fondest political wish is to alter the Japanese Constitution, written in 1945 by US occupying forces, to remove Article 9, which bans Japan from having armed forces.  Though Abe himself if popular, this proposal is not: since World War II the Japanese have become about as peacefully-minded nation as one can imagine.  And so, Abe is trying to tie a constitutional amendment on free-tuition to a constitutional amendment on the armed forces to sweeten the deal.

A couple of points here.  First, this would be a policy reversal on a massive scale.  As R. Taggart Murphy noted back here Japan deliberately kept tuition, along with land values, high in the postwar period as a form of industrial policy (note: if you are interested in Japan and not reading R. Taggart Murphy, especially his magnificent book Japan: The Shackles of the Past, you’re doing it wrong).  High savings meant low interest rates, which gave Japanese industrialists access to cheap capital, which in turn gave them a big manufacturing cost advantage, and Japan rode this to economic success in the 1960s.  Basically, short term pain for long term gain. Now, Abe wants to reverse this process.

The bigger question, though – and not one I have seen discussed anywhere in the Japanese press – is how on earth one implements a free tuition promise in a country where somewhere between 75 and 80% of all students attend private universities.  Making tuition free at national (public) universities is a cinch, but – as Chile discovered a couple of years ago – trying to do the same with private universities without outright nationalization is kind of difficult.  Fees vary from one institution to another: how would each be compensated in a consistent manner?

There’s something similar going on the other side of the Sea of Japan, where new Korean President Moon Jae-in has promised to halve tuition fees.  This isn’t the first time Koreans have heard such a pledge.  In 2011, months of student protests forced then-President Lee Myung-bak to make a similar pledge; however, in the end nothing was done and fees stayed the same (fee levels in Korea are similar to those in Canada).  But again, it’s not entirely clear how once can effectively deliver on a fee-reduction pledge in a system which is dominated by private universities without partial or outright nationalization, which seems unlikely.

If I had to guess, I’d say Korea’s the likelier to implement policy change because a) I don’t think Article 9 is going anywhere, free tuition or no and b) the Korean government is just a lot better at getting stuff done.  But we’ll see.  Two stories to watch, for sure.

March 14

The Free Tuition Impulse

A few weeks ago I presented yet more evidence about why free tuition was mostly a subsidy for the rich and was unlikely, on its own, to do very much with respect to equalizing access (scroll through here and here if you really want to read me on this subject, though I imagine most of you are pretty familiar with my spiel by now). Someone asked me: “why don’t people like the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) and the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) get this?  Surely they can read the evidence, why would they persist in touting a solution which is manifestly regressive”?

There are two possible answers to this question.  One is that in fact they have not read the evidence.  It exists, and they know it exists, but just haven’t read it.  As long as they don’t read the work which falsifies their notions, they can continue to hold these notions. To  paraphrase Upton Sinclair “It is difficult to get a man to read something, when his salary depends upon his not reading it”.

I actually got confirmation of this the other day on Twitter.  I was trying to get CCPA’s chief economist David MacDonald to explain why CCPA holds diametrically opposed positions on universal electricity subsidies (bad because they go disproportionately to the rich) and PSE subsidies (awesome, because they benefit the poor – which actually they don’t always, but that’s their story and they are sticking to it).  Basically, his two lines of defense were “it’s a public good” and “it doesn’t matter if most benefits go to rich because if we make education cheaper more poor students will go”.  The first, even if you assume he meant “there are positive externalities to higher education spending” (which is true) rather than “it fits economists’ description of a public good” (utterly false), is not a 100% sensible rationale as it arguably also applies to electricity to some degree (i.e. “there are positive externalities to people not freezing to death in their homes”).  But the second is ridiculous.  We know for a fact that tuition levels have almost nothing to do with access rates in part because targeted student aid actually works.  So I pushed him on it.  “Have you really read nothing about access problems in zero-tuition jurisdictions?  I asked.  Have you never looked at the rather substantive literature on finances and access”?  No reply.  Which, I think, tells you what you need to know.  People like David MacDonald and the CCPA simply do not want to know.  But that’s only half an answer: why don’t they want to know?  If they know that free tuition is ineffective as a remedy and regressive in distributional outcomes, why support it?  What other agenda is at play?

Well, a few years ago, when I was at a small event on Chile looking at the issue of tuition, I finally came to understand this problem.  A colleague and I were asking our Chilean counterparts: why do you want to make tuition free?  You must know it will make very little difference in access to higher education.  To which one of our counterparts replied:  the point is to get rid of the market.  The market must not decide in higher education.”

And so it is in Canada, I think.  The anti-tuition people are not fundamentally pro-access (though that is how they rationalize their position), so much as they are pro-state.  I suspect it’s partly due to a left-ideological stance which generally favours greater state involvement across the economy, but also partly to a naïve view about what would happen inside universities if the need to satisfy the market ever disappeared.  Such as: that public money would magically replace private money and continue to grow at a pace vastly outstripping inflation forever after.  Such as: nasty private sector Board member would be replaced by bureaucrats or more sympathetic public appointments or – better yet – make academics a majority on governing boards.   And magically, contrary to every bit of evidence from continental Europe, government running 100% publicly-funded universities would be less intrusive and meddling in institutional affairs than they currently are.

Once you realize that the free tuition argument is really a government vs. market argument and not a “how do we best equalize opportunities argument”, it becomes perfectly clear why evidence on the efficacy of tuition in promoting access doesn’t faze the usual suspects.  They don’t actually care about access.  They care about resisting the market.   The access stuff is just sheep’s clothing.

February 22

Notes for the NDP Leadership Race

As contestants start to jump into the federal NDP leadership race, it’s only a matter of time before someone starts promising free tuition to all across the land.  Now, I’m not going to rehash why free tuition is both regressive and undesirable (though if you really want to take a gander through the archives on free tuition, have a look here).  But I do think I can do some public service by talking about federalism and higher education, or rather: what the feds can and cannot do in this sphere.

The entire Canadian constitution is based around a compromise on education dating from 1864.  Upper Canada came to the Quebec conference with one overriding aim: representation by population in Parliament, so that their superior population would give them the most seats in Parliament.  Lower Canada agreed if and only if a second, local, and equal tier of government was created which would have jurisdiction over education and health, because over-their-dead-bodies were a bunch of (mostly) Orangemen going to get their hands on a hallowed set of (mostly) French catholic institutions.

There’s nothing in there that stops Ottawa’s ability to give money to individuals for the purpose of education.  This is why, despite all the sturm und drang, Quebec never put up a legal fight to the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation: Ottawa can give cash to whoever it wants, whenever it wants.  But when it comes to dealing with institutions, their ability to direct money to areas of provincial jurisdiction is subject to provincial veto.  The provinces accept (with limits, in Quebec’s case) that the feds can flow money to institutions for the purposes of academic research.  Hence the Canadian Foundation for Innovation.  They do not accept that it can send money to institutions for operating purposes.

(Historical footnote: there was a period where nine out of ten of them were prepared to accept this.  Back in the mid-1950s, there was a ruse in which the federal government handed tens of millions of dollars every year (a lot back then) to Universities Canada – then known as the National Conference of Canadian Universities and Colleges – which it would then distribute to institutions.  In theory this was a canny work-around to the constitution.  In practice, it stalled because Duplessis blew a gasket and told Quebec universities that if they touched a dime of that money, he’d take it out of their provincial funding.  Pierre Elliott Trudeau then wrote a wonderful article in la Cite called “Federal Grants to Universities” explaining why Duplessis was 100% right and St. Laurent was in kookooland, constitutionally speaking.  It’s a great article, read it if you can.  Anyway, this arrangement lasted into the 1960s, when the feds got out of this arrangement and moved into per-capita grants instead.  And that door is now shut: there is no going back through it.)

Politically, there is a fantasy shared by some on the political left that the federal government can simply re-acquire policy leadership in the post-secondary field by passing an act of Parliament and adding great wodges of cash to existing transfers… with strings attached.  I’ve previously (here) torn a strip off the idea of a federal Post-Secondary Education Act, but let me focus here specifically on the idea that a generalized fiscal transfer could actually affect tuition fees.  Let’s just imagine how that discussion would go.

Ottawa: we want to give each of you money so that you bring your tuition fees to zero.  Quebec and Newfoundland, your fees are about $3000, so we’ll give you that per student…

Ontario: Our fees are $7500 a student or so.  Fork it over.

Quebec and Newfoundland: Hold it.

I could go on here about the nuances of fiscal federalism, but basically that’s the problem in a nutshell (for my American readers: in some less disastrous timeline, Hillary Clinton is facing exactly this problem as she attempts to implement her free tuition promise for public universities). There are ways the federal government could bribe provinces into lowering tuition.  In fact, something like that actually happened in Nova Scotia as a result of the NDP-Liberal budget deal in the minority Parliament of 2005.  But you wouldn’t necessarily get them to lower by an equal amount, and you definitely wouldn’t get them to go to zero because they have vastly different starting points.

So, here’s the quick heads-up to all prospective New Democrat leadership candidates: even if it wanted to, the Government of Canada has no sensible way to eliminate tuition nationally.  If you do manage to form a government, this will be broken promise #1.  So don’t promise it.  Instead, think about ways to support students which don’t involve tuition.  There is a whole whack of things you could do with student assistance instead.  And the best part is: if you use student aid as a tool instead of tuition, you can channel aid to those who actually need it most.

February 08

New York, New York

With the Republicans in control of both Congress and the White house for at least the next two years, the fight for “free tuition” is moving to the state level.  And so to New York, where Governor Cuomo has proposed a form of “free tuition” for anyone attending the City University of New York (CUNY) or the State University of New York (SUNY) and whose family earns less than $125,000.  So what does this mean exactly?

Well, to be clear, it’s not the same kind of free tuition Hillary Clinton was offering back in the election campaign.  (There are many kinds of free tuition, as I noted back here; refresh your memory, if you like).  Clinton was offering – with scant details – a vision where with enough federal funds, states and their public university systems would agree to stop charging tuition fees to students from families below $125,000 in income (or, roughly, 80% of the student population.  That idea was always a little bit pie-in-the-sky: the impracticalities of it were well covered by Kevin Carey at the time.  What Cuomo is offering instead is a top-up plan to make tuition “net free”.  Basically, he’s going to offer students below the cut-off line whatever amount of grants it takes to equal the amount they pay in tuition.  This payment, to be known as an ‘Excelsior Scholarship” (really), is thus equivalent to tuition minus any grants the student is already receiving from the federal or state governments via the Pell grant system.

Now, you might be saying to yourself: hey, that kind of sounds like the Ontario model.  That’s good, isn’t it?  To which the answer is: yes, it is a lot like the Ontario model.  It’s income-targeted net free tuition.  Except a) in some respects it’s going to be more like New Brunswick, with a big step-function (link to: ) at $125,001 instead of a nice smooth slope of benefits like Ontario and b) the threshold for getting full benefits is ludicrously high and has perverse consequences.

What do I mean by perverse consequences?  Well, the thing is that for students at the low-income level of the spectrum, federal and state grants already equal tuition.  So literally none of the money involved here is going to help them.  The biggest winners in the Cuomo proposal are precisely those people who get no grants right now – basically from families with about $80K and up in family income.  And yet these are the people who have the least trouble going to college right now.

The question here is: if you have a couple of hundred million dollars to spend, why would you give it to a group of people who have no issue attending in the first place?  Why not put money where it will be most effective? Columbia University’s Judith Scott-Clayton suggests there’s good evidence that money going to institutions creates better access outcomes than simply limiting the price.

Even Chile, once very keen on full “gratuidad”, has belatedly come around to this realization.  For budgetary reasons, the government was forced to limit its recent introduction of “free” tuition to students from families in the bottom six deciles of income.  This summer, the Chilean Treasury Department published cost estimates for the program.  In its present state the fully-phased in cost of the program will be 607 billion pesos (about $1.25 billion Canadian, or about $950M American).  Adding each of the next four deciles raises the price by about 350 billion, or 58%.  That is to say, free tuition for everyone would cost over 2 trillion pesos, or over three times as much as it costs for the bottom six deciles.  That difference is equal to 1.5% of GDP.  And what would be the purpose of spending all that money?  The very fact that it costs so much is a reflection of the fact that participation from these groups is already so high they don’t really need government help.  What kind of socialist government prioritizes handing over 1.5% of GDP to families in the top four income deciles?

In short, while targeted free tuition makes a great deal of sense, it really does need to be targeted.  If targeting weakens, the program becomes more expensive and less effective.  New York’s plan, clearly, suffers from insufficient targeting.  Ontario’s plan has it about right.  But beware: the Premier occasionally muses about extending the plan to higher income groups and there’s certainly a chance such an idea will make it into the policy conversation as the provincial election approaches.  That way madness and much wasted public funding lies.

Page 1 of 1412345...10...Last »