Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Tuition

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.

February 06


Here’s a new one: the Canadian Federation of Students has decided, apparently, that charging international students higher tuition fees is “xenophobic”.  No, really, they have.  This is possibly the dumbest idea in Canadian higher education since the one about OSAP “profiting” from students.   But as we’ve seen all too often in the past year or two, stupidity is no barrier to popularity where political ideas are concerned.  So: let’s get down to debunking this.

The point that CFS – and maybe others, you never know who’s prepared to follow them down these policy ratholes – is presumably trying to highlight is that Canadian universities charge differential fees – one set for domestic students and another, higher, one for students from abroad.  Their argument is that this differential is unfair to international students and that fees should be lowered so as to equal those of domestic students.

It’s not indefensible to suggest that domestic and international tuition fees should be identical.  Lots of countries do it:  Norway, Germany and Portugal to name but three and if I’m not mistaken, both Newfoundland and Manitoba have had such policies within living memory as well.  But the idea that citizens and non-citizens pay different amounts for a publicly-funded service is not a radical, let alone a racist, one.  A non-citizen of Toronto wishing to borrow from the Toronto Libraries is required to pay a fee for a library card, while a citizen does not.  This is not xenophobic: it is a way of ensuring that services go in priority to people who pay taxes in that jurisdiction.  If an American comes to Canada and gets sick, they are expected to pay for their treatment if they visit a doctor or admitted to hospital.  This is not xenophobic either: the price is the same to all, it’s just that we have all pre-paid into a domestic health insurance fund but foreigners have not.

It’s the same in higher education.  American public universities all charge one rate to students from in-state and another to those out-of-state.  Not xenophobic: just prioritizing local taxpayers.  In Ontario, universities are not allowed to use their tuition set-aside dollars – collected from all domestic tuition fees – to provide funding to out-of-province students.  Irritating?  Yes.  Xenophobic?  No.

International students are in the same position.  Their parents have not paid into the system.  Only a minority of them will stay here in Canada to pay into it themselves.  So why on earth should they pay a similar amount to domestic students?  And it’s not as if there’s massive profiteering going on: as I showed back here, in most of the country international fees are set below the average cost of attendance.  So international students are in fact being subsidized; just not very much.

In any event, even if we were charging international students over the going rate, that wouldn’t be evidence of xenophobia.  Perhaps it has escaped CFS’ notice, but there is not a single university in the country which is turning away undergraduate students.  According to every dictionary I’ve been able to lay my hands on, xenophobia means irrational fear and hatred of foreigners; yet now CFS has discovered some odd variant in which the xenophobes are falling over each other to attract as many foreigners as possible.

My guess is that most people at CFS can distinguish between “xenophobia” and “differential fees”.  What’s happened, though, is that part of the brain trust at head office simply decided to use an emotive word to try to stigmatize a policy with which their organization disagrees.  That kind of approach sometimes works in politics: just think of the success Sarah Palin had when she invented the term “death panels” to describe end-of-life counselling under American federal health care legislation.

But effectiveness is not the be-all and end-all of politics.  Sarah Palin is a cancerous wart on democracy.  You’d kind of hope our own student groups would try to avoid imitating her.

December 14

More on International Fees in Canadian Universities

Due to a few unexpected issues yesterday, we had to postpone the One Thought. With no further ado, here it is:

The day before yesterday we looked at what universities in different parts of the country are charging in terms of international tuition fees.  Here’s a quick graph to refresh your memory:

Figure 1: International Undergraduate Tuition Fees, by Province, Canada, 2016-17


Figure 2 shows the same data but with a different Y axis.  Instead of showing the figure in dollars, let’s show the figure as a percentage of national average total institutional expenditures per FTE students (minus sponsored research), which in 2014-15 was $24,732.

Figure 2: Provincial Average Tuition as a percentage of National Average Institutional Expenditures per FTE student


What figure 2 shows is that on average international students are covering more or less (95%) covering the cost of their education through tuition, but that is mostly because of policies in Ontario, where the figure is 120% of cost.  In the other three “big provinces” the fees are about 85% of cost, whereas elsewhere the figure is lower; as low as 38% in Newfoundland’s case.

Now, let’s think about these figures in terms of how Canada positions itself as an education market.  Are we a bargain player, or a luxury player?  This isn’t quite a straightforward question to answer because not everyone reports data in the same way.  But, basically, here’s the basic story: in the US according to the College Board’s Trends in College Prices 2016, 4-year private non-profits charge US$33,480 (for both national and international students); out-of-state charges at public 4-year universities are US$24,930.  In the UK, international fees vary substantially based on whether the course is a lecture course, a laboratory course or a clinical course; the Times Higher 2016 survey of fees, the average for these three types of courses are, respectively, £13,442, £15,638 and £20,956.  In New Zealand, the most recent data available comes from the Education Counts website; according to this, in 2015, the average tuition at universities was NZ$24,150.  So far as I can tell there is no “official” average for fees in Australia (not even for domestic students), but this 2014 survey shows that the average in “indicative fee” for international students is A$23,521.  Given that a couple of years have passed and fees certainly aren’t going down, we can probably round that up to an even $25,000.

Now, let’s translate all those figures into a common currency.  And let’s do it the way an international student likely would; namely, in $USD, using current exchange rates.  Normally, I do these kinds of comparisons in $PPP but since international students have to convert money to buy in each currency, exchange rates make more sense.  So, at current rates of exchange, here is what the competitive picture in each jurisdiction looks like:

Figure 3: Average International Student Tuition Fees, Selected Jurisdictions, in $USD


In brief, prices for international students in the US are substantially higher than they are elsewhere in the Anglophone world: US privates are charging 85% more than Canadian universities, and the publics are charging about 35% more.   National averages for Canada, Australia, New Zealand and UK (lecture courses) are all very tightly bunched together at between $17-18,000 US.  Only Ontario seems to be trying to play around the same price point as US publics.

One question that arises from this chart is: why exactly aren’t universities in the rest of Canada charging more?  What do Manitoba and Nova Scotia, let alone Newfoundland, gain by having such low fees?  Well, part of the story has to do with the way provincial subsidies work in these provinces.  In both Manitoba and Newfoundland, institutions get block grants and so all money from international students is “additional” to institutional budgets (I have a feeling this is true in Nova Scotia as well but wasn’t able to confirm before publication).  They can set them low because they simply do not need to get income equivalent to cost of education, the way Ontario universities do.  But while that might make sense from an institutional point of view, it’s not as clear why that makes sense from a provincial one: what’s in it for provincial governments to provide this level of subsidy for international students?

One possible argument is that these provinces need to price low in order to attract students (Winnipeg winters are perhaps a tough sell in South East Asia); and since education is a funnel for immigration, maybe the way to think about this money is as a “loss leader” for future population growth.  But then again, we already know that Atlantic Canada has a harder time hanging on to students after graduation than the rest of the country , so maybe this isn’t such a winning idea after all.n

I’d argue in fact that low-pricing is self-defeating in international higher education.  A degree from a (reasonably) prestigious institution is in fact a Veblen good: higher prices drive greater demand because they give an aura of exclusivity.  It’s the one type of good where demand curves don’t slope downwards and institutions would be kind of crazy not to take advantage of that.  There’s a good case to be made that institutions in the Atlantic and prairie provinces could increase international student tuition.


December 12

How International Tuition Fees Keep Canadian Universities Afloat

Everyone knows that international student numbers have been going up over the past decade or so. What you might not know is what kind of effect that’s having on university budgets. So, today, a few brief tables and charts.

First, tuition fees for international undergraduate students. Nationally, these have been growing at a rate of inflation +4% over the past decade, which is substantially faster than the rise in domestic tuition (roughly, inflation +1.5%). Nationally, the average international tuition is $23,589, but both this figure and the recent run-up in tuition is due almost entirely to what is going on in Ontario. Ten years ago, international student tuition in Ontario was barely different from the national average; now, after a decade of annual increases of inflation +6%, it lies a full $6,000 above it.

Figure 1: International Undergraduate Student Tuition, Canada and Selected Provinces, 2006-07 to 2016-17, in constant $2016


Now of course, if you have increasing numbers of international students paying increased fees, it stands to reason that their financial contribution is also increasing. Now, no institution actually publishes data on the amount of money they receive from international students, so no one has ever looked at the extent to which Canadian universities are dependent on that type of revenue with any degree of specificity. But if one simply multiplies out student numbers (using data from Statscan’s Post-secondary Student Information System) by average fees (from Statscan’s Tuition and Living Accommodation Costs Survey), one can get a rough sense of the magnitude of their contribution (some quirks in the way Statscan deals with business students means we can’t quite capture data on MBA students accurately, so we are probably undercounting a bit). What we find when we do this (see Figure 2) is that nationally, roughly 23% of all fees paid come from international students.

Figure 2: International Students’ Fees Paid as a Percentage of all Fees Paid, Canada and Selected Provinces, 2008-09 to 2013-14


Now a careful examination of Figure 2 reveals some interesting facts. The proportion of fees coming from international students is highest in Quebec (44%) not just because fees are high, but because tuition for domestic students is so low. Conversely, the proportion in Ontario is relatively low even though international tuition is high because domestic fees are also high.

We can move on from this to show what percentage of all operating revenues are accounted for from international fees, which I show below in figure 3.

Figure 3: International Tuition Fees as a Percentage of Operating Income, Canada and Selected Provinces, 2008-09 to 2013-14


Nationally, income from international students at Canadian universities was equal to a little over 7% of operating income in 2013-14 (also true in Ontario, which you probably can’t see on the chart because the lines are almost entirely parallel); however, the averages by province vary enormously, from 12% in British Columbia to 4% in Alberta to even lower in Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan.

(In the preceding graphs I stuck to only showing the largest four provinces, because including all ten makes for a gory visual mess; but for all the other provinces, information for 2013-14 is shown below in table 1. And for those who might be kvetching because I am not presenting college data – we asked colleges for data to do precisely this kind of analysis, and by and large they refused.)

Table 1: Data on International Fees, Canada and Provinces, 2013-14


A final point here: at most Canadian universities, total operating income plus capital expenditure per student is in the range of $25,000 a head. What that suggests is that in most provinces, international students, despite paying what is allegedly “market” tuition, are in fact still not paying the full cost of their education and are in fact being subsidized. Only in Ontario is this clearly not the case; elsewhere, it would appear that foreign students – far from being “cash cows” – are in fact being subsidized by Canadian taxpayers.

More thoughts on this tomorrow.

October 28


Next week, everyone’s favourite Federation of Students is going to have a “Day of Action” to demand “Free Education for All”.  A few months ago I explained why some student groups think it’s a good idea to be protesting right now even while governments are quite sympathetic to them  (tl:dr: it’s because Sticking It To The Man is more important that achieving practical results).

Now to anyone who’s read this blog for more than once, it’s probably clear that I take a pretty dim view on the Free Education for All line.  I do believe there’s an argument for free education at the college level; however, beyond that, the case is pretty weak.  Low-income students already have net zero tuition in most of the country.  For students from families making $40,000, subsidies (that is, grants, loan remission and tax credits) are already larger than college fees in eight provinces – all ten if we include Manitoba’s and Saskatchewan’s graduate rebate programs.  They’re also larger than university fees in five provinces: Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba.  Put that altogether and it’s clear that over 90% of all low-income students are already paying net zero tuition and will gain little from eliminating tuition.  The big wins, therefore, are for richer students.

Free tuition does not reduce intergenerational disparities.  It cannot produce greater equity in enrolments without a massive and seriously unlikely displacement of upper-income students from universities.   And even Karl Marx understood that it was regressive.

But let’s put all that aside.  Let’s assume for a moment that we all agree that any regressivity which occurs in completely subsidizing education for students from wealthier backgrounds is offset by the inherent benefits of universal programs.  Or, let’s assume we agree with American scholar/author and free-tuition advocate Sara Goldrick-Rab (whose new book Paying the Price is very good by the way) that the only way to really ensure that the poor get the money they need is to subsidise the rich, too.  Programs for the poor are poor programs, she says, so only universality can save the poor. (I don’t think this is true in Canada – the Trudeau government has just shown how to do targeting with its changing tax credits into grants – but I grant the possibility it may be the case in the US, so let’s go with it for now).

But even if we assume all that, we still need to assume that there is money available.  And in one sense there clearly is:  governments can make anything happen if they want to.   They just have to decide to do it.  It is a political question more than a financial one.  But politics, as they say, is about choices.  And the issue is: what would we choose not to pay for in order to ensure that kids from above-median income families don’t have to pay tuition?

Peace-keeping?  Should we say no to a mission to Mali to keep wealthier kids from paying tuition?  Childcare?  Do we choose to invest less in childcare to make university free for those who can clearly afford it?  Or what about clean drinking water on First Nations’ territories?  More investments in mental health?

Because of entrenched interests and programs, it’s very difficult for democratic governments to move money from program to program.  When incremental money arrives, they have to assign it to whatever priorities they think most important.  It could go back to taxpayers via a tax cut, or it could go to pay down debt, or it could go into a priority spending area.  When someone says “government should eliminate post-secondary fees”, in practical terms what they are implicitly arguing is that “students from wealthier backgrounds (because those are the primary beneficiaries) deserve this money more than families with childcare needs, or First Nations families living in communities with boil water advisories.  I know they would explicitly deny this, but from the perspective of the government, which has to choose between competing priorities, this is exactly what is being advocated.  That’s how lobbying works.

To recap:  Free fees would help the rich most, would not reduce intergenerational inequality, will not work to reduce inequality of access, and to boot would take money away from other important policy priorities, many of which (e.g. First Nations’ health and sanitation) are transparently of higher importance.

Remember all that on November 2nd.

October 03

Peas in a Pod

A few weeks ago, there was an absolutely hysterical story on CBC about a Fraser Institute report on carbon taxes.  You can read the article for yourself, but the argument was basically this: carbon taxes are bad because they would have a disproportionate effect on people in lower income brackets.

Assuming you believe the Fraser Institute actually gives a rat’s hairy behind about people in lower income brackets, this is not an entirely stupid point; multiple studies in the US have come to this conclusion. But it depends quite a bit on the design of the tax: if you use part of the revenue to fund lump-sum transfers to poorer families to offset the effects of the tax, one can actually develop a tax which is relatively progressive (see this paper from Resources for the Future for some simulations on the incidence of different types of carbon taxes).  So yes, if you design a bad carbon tax, it probably will have regressive effects.  But design a good one and you’re off to the races.

You may at this point be asking yourself “why is Alex droning on about carbon taxes in what is ostensibly a higher education blog”?  Fair question. And the answer is: because the Fraser Institute’s argument about carbon taxes is EXACTLY the same as the CFS/CAUT/Usual suspects on the left argument against tuition.  Fees are seen as regressive because they represent a higher proportion of family income to the poor than the rich (see here for example)

Now, if we believe that CFS and the usual suspects on one side and the Fraser Institute on the other both actually believe their own argument, then we have a possibility of some radical political re-alignment in Canada.  The hard left should oppose carbon taxes, the hard right should oppose tuition fees – after all, who would want to hurt the poor?

But, as you may suspect, that isn’t the whole story.  In precisely the same way that the Fraser Institute assumes away any sensible attempt to hold the poor harmless for a carbon tax through rebates or transfers, the usual suspects on the left completely ignore grants and scholarships as an offset to tuition fees, and so exaggerate – and occasionally entirely misrepresent – the actual distributional impact of net tuition.  One of the reasons I was so pleased last year about the Government of Ontario’s decision to make net tuition “free” for low income students was not so much because it improved students’ welfare (net tuition was already less than zero for many thousands of students), but precisely because it makes this rhetorical BS harder to maintain.

Anyway, even if students grants or energy tax rebates didn’t exist, objecting to putting a price on something because any non-zero price “impacts the poor more than the rich” is insane.  You could object to every product in a market economy that way: beer, popcorn, baby formula, pistachios – they all “impact the poor more than the rich”.  The point is to raise incomes at the bottom to help people purchase more goods at less of a burden, not get rid of the price mechanism.  You’d think that a right-wing pro-market think-tank might actually grasp that.

But then of course, said right-wing think tank does understand this.  Their argument is an argument of convenience and not conviction.  In the service of defeating carbon taxes, no argument is too stupid to make.  As is the case for the usual suspects and their hatred of tuition.  Peas in a pod.

September 23

Social License and Tuition Fees

So, to Johannesburg, where South African Education Minister (and Communist Party chief) Blade Nzimande finally announced the government’s decision on tuition for next year. He was in a tricky place: students are still demanding free tuition (see my previous story on the Fees Must Fall movement here) and will not accept a hike in fees. Meanwhile, universities are quite rightly feeling very stretched (it’s tough trying to maintain developed-world caliber institutions on a tax base which is only partially of the developed-world): with inflation running at around 6.5%, a fee freeze would amount to a substantial cut in real income.

So what did the minister do? He pulled an Ontario (or a Chile, or a Clinton, if you prefer). Tuition to rise, but students from families with income of R600,000 or less (roughly C$56,000, or US$43,000) would be exempt from paying the higher tuition. Who exactly was going to verify students’ income is a bit of a mystery since the cut-off for student financial aid in South Africa is considerably below R600,000 (a justified cause of further student complaint), but no matter. The basic idea was clear: the well-off will pay, the needy will not. The exact amount extra they would pay? That would be up to individual universities. They could set their own tuition but were strongly advised not to try increasing fees by more than 8%.

It took student unions less than five seconds to find this inadequate and to denounce the government. Several unions have threatened to boycott classes if their institution raised fees.

This raises an interesting question. Why, if students in Chile and Ontario are claiming victory (or partial victory at least) over their fee regimens, do South African students reject it? Well, context is everything. The key here is government legitimacy, or lack thereof.

Let’s take the Charest government in the Spring of 2012. The tuition fee increase that the government proposed was not excessive, and poorer students in fact might have been better off once tax credits were factored in. But absolutely no one paid the slightest bit of attention to the policy details. This was a government that had outstayed its welcome, and was badly tarred by corruption scandals (my favourite joke from that spring: what’s the difference between a student leader and a Montreal mafia boss? Only one of them has to forswear violence in order to get a meeting with the Minister of Education). It had a good, saleable plan, but literally no political capital on which to draw. The plan, as we all know, failed.

(By the by, this is why, if the Couillard government is going to move on tuition fees, it’s going to have to do it this year. Their window is closing.)

I could go down the list here. The big anti-tuition fee protests that got the President of South Korea to promise to reduce tuition in the spring of 2011? That was at the tail end of a profoundly unpopular Presidency (though to be fair in Korea it’s the rare presidency that doesn’t end in profound unpopularity). The Chilean tuition protests of 2011-2? Also at the end of an unpopular presidency. By contrast, the largest tuition fee increase in the history of the world – the increase announced for England in the fall of 2010 – was essentially met with only a single rally, in part because the measure was introduced by a brand-new government which led in the polls. Basically, you need “social license” in order to do something unpopular on tuition fees. Some governments have it, others don’t.

The South African government is in precisely this kind of legitimacy crisis right now. It is not a simple matter of President Zuma’s unpopularity, though his increasingly kleptocratic regime is profoundly unhelpful. It’s a bigger crisis of post-apartheid society. Formal racial equality exists, but equality in economic opportunity, equality in educational opportunity: those are still very far away and in many ways are not much better than they were 20 years ago. Today’s youth, born after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, no longer feel much loyalty to the ANC as the leader of “the struggle”. They simply see the party as being incompetent, corrupt, and incapable of delivering a better and more equal society.

And it’s that anger, that rage, which is driving the #feesmustfall movement. I think there’s a real chance this won’t end well; there has already been a serious uptick in violence on South African campuses. South Africa’s universities, unfortunately, may end up as collateral damage in a larger fight for the country’s future.


September 09

Some Intriguing New UK Access Data

The UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency (also known in these parts as “the other HESA”) put out an interesting report recently on participation in higher education in England (available here).  England is of course of great interest to access researchers everywhere because its massive tuition hike in 2012 is a major natural policy experiment: if there is no clear evidence of changes in access after a tuition hike of that magnitude then we can be more confident that tuition hikes elsewhere won’t have much of an effect either (assuming students are all given loans to cover the fees as they are in England).  I’ve written about previously about some of the evidence that has come out to date back here, here, here and here: mostly the evidence has shown little to no effect on low-income students making a direct transition to university, but some effects on older students.

The new (other) HESA report is interesting.  You may have seen the Guardian headline on this, which was that since the change in fees, the percentage of state school students who proceeded to higher education by the age of 19 fell from 66% to 62% in the years either side of the policy change (note: regular state-school students make up a little over 83% of those enrolled in A-level or equivalent courses, with the rest split about equally between selective state schools and independent schools).  On the face of it, that’s a pretty bad result for those concerned about access.

But there are three other little nuggets in the report which the Guardian chose to ignore.  The first was that if you looked simply at those who took A-levels, the drop was much smaller (from 74% to 72%).  Thus the biggest drop was from those taking what are known as “A-level equivalents” (basically, applied A-levels).  The second is that among the very poorest students – that is, those who receive free school meals, essentially all of whom are in the main state sector – enrolment rates essentially didn’t move at all.  They were 21% in 2011/12, 23% in 2012/13 and 22% in 2013/14. All of this is a long way up from 13% observed in 2005, the year before students from families with incomes below £20,000 had to start paying tuition.  Third and last, the progression rate of state school students to the most selective institutions didn’t change at all, either.

So what this means is that the decline was most concentrated not on the poor in state schools but in the middle-class, and landed more on students with “alternative” credentials.  That doesn’t make a loss of access any more acceptable, but it does put a crimp in the theory that the drop was *caused* by higher tuition fees.  If “affordability” (or perceived affordability) were the issue, why would it hit middle-income students more than lower-income students?  If affordability were the issue, why would it be differentially affecting those taking alternative credentials?  There some deeper questions to answer here.


June 10

A National Day of Action

Earlier this week  Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) decided to hold a “National Day of Action”, its first since 2012.  Many may find this a bit puzzling: after all, this is a year in which the federal government increased student grants and doubled the number of summer student jobs (also, increased granting council funding and put aside gazillions for infrastructure, though that may matter less to students than to other post-secondary stakeholders).  So what, exactly, is CFS thinking?

Well, I don’t have an inside line to CFS or anything, but what’s important to remember is that the organization really, really does not think of itself as an interest group, and that therefore one shouldn’t try to analyze its decisions using the standard framework that lobbyists use to evaluate decisions.  Interest groups like to have access to decision-makers (ministers, MPs/MLAs, senior public servants).  Indeed, they gauge their success in terms of their ability to get decision-makers to think of their specific issues in their terms – to “capture” the decision-makers, so to speak.  There are a lot of student organizations in the country that think this way: in Ottawa, you have the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations or CASA (disclosure: I was National Director of CASA 20 years ago), but there’s also the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance and College Student Alliance here in Toronto, Students Nova Scotia in Halifax, and the Council of Alberta University Students out in Edmonton.

But CFS does not think of itself this way.  Instead, it thinks of itself as a “movement”.  And movements behave very differently from interest groups. 

For interest groups, getting close to decision-makers is THE way to promote change.  For movements, getting close to decisions-makers is cause for suspicion (i.e. “Talking to The Man?  What if we get corrupted by the Man?”).  Movements care less for concrete results in terms of obtaining things for “members” (itself a term which is understood fundamentally differently by movements and interest groups); rather, what matters for movements is changing people’s “consciousness”. 

Pretty clearly, that’s what at work here with CFS.  A National Day of Action is certainly a good way of getting individual student unions to engage with their members about the real and imagined plights of students, and getting them out on the street.  And after the day of action, if you ask them “was this a success”, they will answer not in terms of policies changed but simply in terms of the number of students who out in the street because for a movement, that is an end in and of itself.

That there are opportunity costs in taking this approach is literally incomprehensible to CFS (which, judging by its policy manual, isn’t especially conversant with the subject in any other context, either).  The idea that raising consciousness with students might actively piss off a government which spent a fair bit of political capital in providing new money for students, and hence make further co-operation and progress less likely, simply doesn’t compute.  This is not surprising, since they spend a lot more time thinking about how to persuade their own members to engage than they do thinking about how to engage policymakers.

Historically, Canada’s students have probably been reasonably well served by having one national student organization work as an interest group and the other as a movement.  They have to some extent acted as a good cop/bad cop duo, even if they actively despise one another.  But even so, it’s incredibly hard to see what good can come of this Day of Action.  Politicians respond favourably to people who say thank you when they’ve gone to bat for you.  They respond less well when you put thousands of people on the street to yell about how much they suck. 

I hope CFS gets all the consciousness-raising it needs out of this.  It’d be a shame to sacrifice actual progress on issues if they didn’t.

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