There seems to be a lot of interest in this Nova Scotia budget announcement on tuition-fee de-regulation, mostly from the everything-is-going-to-hell-
(Necessary conflict of interest statement: In fall 2014, I did some writing work for the Nova Scotia Council of University Presidents, relating to priorities for the 2015 budget. Make of that what you will.)
To start, let’s be clear about what the province has done. It has allowed universities to do two things:
1) For out-of-province, international and graduate students, the government has permanently de-regulated tuition fees
2) For in-province undergraduates, tuition fees are being de-regulated for one year only, in order to allow institutions to make a one-time “adjustment” to program fees, after which tuition will return to having a 3% annual cap.
Now, some people assume that the term “de-regulation” means everyone is going to go hog-wild on fees. But this isn’t necessarily true: remember that students will react to any price increase and this is a competitive market. So the trick for universities is to work out the elasticity of the market – basically, how high can you jack up the price before people start looking for substitutes?
Universities essentially have two markets: “home” and “away”. You can charge home students a heck of a lot before they will look for substitutes; they have to move away from home to find a substitute and that’s expensive – so the price differential can be quite high before a home market moves very much. (note also that perceived quality matters – as many students leave Quebec for Ontario as the other way around, despite the substantial tuition gap). But you can’t get away with that for “away” students in the same manner. They are already paying substantially more than sticker price, because they are living away from home. They already have cheaper alternatives. How much more expensive can you make your product before turning them off?
Obviously, institutions are only going to raise fees in areas where they think demand is inelastic: that is, where a price hike isn’t going to substantially affect enrollment. That means generally speaking you can expect fee rises to be concentrated in program where demand substantially exceeds supply. Which means – among other things – that Arts programs aren’t likely to see big jumps. But to add a bit of a wrinkle: the province has given universities the most flexibility over fees for group of students who are the most price-sensitive and the least flexibility over fees for those who are least price-sensitive. Which makes for a very weird set of incentives: the pressure to go big will be highest for in-province students, because if they over-shoot on price to the high side they can always lower the price in subsequent years whereas if they price low, they won’t later be able to raise them significantly if they under-shoot.
It’s impossible in advance to say how institutions are going to take advantage of this flexibility. Presumably strategies will vary depending on the amount of market power (i.e. excess of demand over supply) that each institution thinks it has in each of its programs: But one lesson they should heed from the recent experience of almost-deregulation in Australia is this: make decisions quickly. The longer uncertainty persists about what the prices will be, the longer opponents will have to raise support by suggesting the prices will be ridiculously high (King’s University Student Union was first off the mark on this one – see here – and they added some utterly ludicrous “statistics” on debt to bolster their case). So while it goes against the grain to announce 2016 prices before Christmas, smart institutions will at the very least set out some principles that will counter the more hysterical propaganda as soon as possible. Preferably before summer.