Over the past two days, I’ve been explaining how Canada spends as much on non-repayable aid as its PSE institutions collect in tuition fees for domestic students – meaning, in net terms, that Canadian students pay zero tuition. Today I want to explore the implications of this.
Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean: it doesn’t mean that many people are going to school for free. All this funding is pretty lumpy. Many Quebecers and Newfoundlanders are receiving significantly more money than they are paying – ditto First Nations and students in Quebec CEGEPs. On the other hand, education is pretty expensive in Alberta because of the way the provincial government chose to slash student aid funding at the outset of the recession.
Another group also making out pretty well is graduate students in non-professional fields. They make up about 10% of the post-secondary student body, yet with their hold over the bulk of government and institutional merit scholarships, and their being nearly all independent students (and hence receiving more generous student aid packages), they are likely taking home something like 25-30% of the entire non-repayable available aid (of course, one could make the case that money for graduate students shouldn’t really be thought about in the same way as student aid, since it’s really support for research. There’s no hard-and-fast line here, but it’s worth a debate).
But here’s what it does mean: at over $7 billion in aid, 90-95% of it going to full-time students, we are spending something on the order of $5,500 per full-time student in non-repayable aid – and that includes those full-time CEGEP students who are paying $0 in tuition. Pure and simple, it makes a mockery of the idea that there is some sort of generalized affordability crisis. Nobody – absolutely nobody – is paying sticker price for tuition, and a substantial proportion of students are paying nothing at all (or very close to it). The next time someone (say, the Canadian Centre on Policy Alternatives, for instance) tries to peddle an “affordability crisis”, they need to be refuted vigorously. Insufficient student aid money is not the problem.
What is a problem is that not enough of this money gets to the right students. Sometimes, this is because the money is geographically restricted (e.g. too much aid in Quebec, not enough in Alberta), but the main reason is that our tax credit system, which puts $2.5 billion in the hands of students and their parents each year, is a colossal waste of potential. Re-distributing that money more according to need (as Quebec, in the one decent thing to come out of the Red Square movement, did back here) is long overdue as a policy measure.
That some students need extra funds is not in doubt, as all serious observers of Canadian higher education know. What separates the serious people from the cranks and the dilettantes, however, is precisely the ability to believe this without concluding that the problem is a generalized one, or that the only solution is to freeze or reduce tuition. Net zero tuition makes that position completely untenable.