Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Tuition

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.


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 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 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.

May 04

Diverse Sacrifices, Diverse Rewards, Diverse Policies

One of the trickiest things about developing smart higher education policy is that its clients are unbelievably diverse: privileged private-school educated 18 year-olds, first-generation students, working adults, etc.  And the returns to education are equally diverse: strong for Bachelors’ and Master’s Degrees but less so for Doctorates, often strong in professionally-oriented fields and less so in Arts (at least in the first few years).  Coming up with reasonable pricing and student aid policies that can be generally accepted as fair across in the face of all this diversity is a very tricky job indeed.

The first part of this was brought home to me recently when we saw the results of some research  conducted by British Columbia on mature students across Canada.  One of the questions asked was “what’s the biggest sacrifice you have had to make to go back to school”?  The sheer range of answers we got was astonishing.  At one end, there were answers like “I had to give up my gym/yoga membership”, or “I had to give up quinoa” (a high proportion of these, it should be said, came from British Columbia).  The most common response was that people’s social lives were negatively affected because they could no longer afford to eat out with friends.

But at the other end of the spectrum there were some pretty horrific responses.  People who had to pull their kids out of sports teams.  People choosing between rent and food, or rent and medicine.  People who had had spells of homelessness.   All told, the results showed that the several thousand student-aid receiving mature students surveyed, just short of ten percent had experienced a significant form of food or housing precariousness while being a student.

Simply put, there are students who really have very little need of extra help, and there are students who need a lot more help than they currently receive.  This is precisely why the kind of system towards which Canada’s student aid programs are evolving is a good thing: we are withdrawing support from better-off students and concentrating it among worse-off students.  Could we do better?   Sure.  In particular we could do more for the people I call “involuntary students” – people in their 30s or 40s who have cars and houses but who suddenly lose their job and need to re-train.  But the point is, we need more targeted aid, not less.  One-size fits all policies are unhelpful.

It is the same with respect to returns to education.  It is a simple slogan to say that education must be free, that education must not be commoditized.  But it is also a simplistic one.  Low prices (net or sticker) can make a difference in terms of attracting low-income students.  But they also provide huge windfall benefits to students in fields with above-average returns, and it’s really hard to argue that there is any kind of public policy rationale for pricing a public service in such a way that some students (say, in ECE programs) see a very low private return and other students (say, in Dentistry programs) see a very high private return.  There is a way to square this circle: it’s to charge different amounts based on the field of study, and deal with the negative effects of higher fees through income-targeted grants.  Although not all of Canada looks like this, it is more or less the way the system currently works in Ontario. 

The point here is simply this: higher education is not a simple field.  It has many purposes, many clients, many outcomes.  To make it work properly, the policies and regulations which govern it need to be sensitive to this diversity.  Any higher education policy which you can put on a button or a bumper-sticker is therefore likely to be either wrong or wasteful.  

March 18

The Cultural Aspect of “Affordability”

In tuition policy circles, there are a lot of “grass is greener” perspectives: that is, people arguing about affordability based on foreign examples of either high or low tuition.  But one of the problems with looking at “affordability” of higher education in cross-national contexts is that affordability is a matter of perspective.  What’s affordable in one country often isn’t in another.  I don’t mean this simply in the trivial sense that some countries are richer than others.  Obviously a $3,000 tuition fee is more affordable in Canada than it is in Zimbabwe.  Rather, I mean it in the sense that students and families in different countries with similar standards of living have different views about what kinds of sacrifices they are prepared to make in order to send their kids to school.

So here’s one example: East Africa.  There, you have four countries with fairly similar higher education systems.  Each has one obvious “flagship” institution, and a mix of private and public institutions.  The private sector teaches about a third of all students in Tanzania, and about half in Uganda and Rwanda; in Kenya, the figure is between 10 and 15%.  I can’t show you average fees in each country because they don’t exist, but here’s a selection of fees at each country’s flagship institution, in USD, at current exchange rates, which gives you a rough idea of the relative fee levels across the region.

Table 1: Tuition Fees at East African Flagship Universities, 2015-16, in USD






Now, let’s express those fees in terms of GDP/capita to get a sense of how “affordable” these fees are.  For comparison, tuition + compulsory fees in Canada are about 13% of GDP/capita.

Table 2: Tuition Fees at East African Flagship Universities, 2015-16, in USD (*Source: World Bank 2013)







Finally, let’s talk about availability of student assistance.  All four countries have student loan programs.  Uganda’s is very small – only a couple of thousand loans per year, starting in 2015 – while Tanzania’s is the largest, serving somewhere between a quarter and a third of all students.  The other two countries are in between, though Kenya’s system more resembles Tanzania’s, and Rwanda’s is closer to Uganda.

Now, based on all that, what do you think access rates look like?  Most people would probably put Tanzania (cheapest, best student aid) at the top, and Uganda (expensive, least available student aid) at the bottom.  But here’s what enrolment rates actually look like:

Figure 1: University Students per 100,000 of Population, East Africa, 2015 or Latest














A couple of caveats about the data.   Tanzania’s numbers are different from the others because nearly a quarter of its student body is enrolled at the country’s Open University, many of them in education programs.  Uganda’s numbers are somewhat lower because compared to the other countries, it has more tertiary students in non-university institutions.  But that aside, the real story is that Tanzania (richer, cheap tuition, better loan availability) is a lot closer to Uganda (poorer, more expensive, almost no loans) than it is to Kenya in terms of access rates.  And if you spend any time in the area, you’ll quickly learn something else: universities in Tanzania are far more likely than those elsewhere in the region to say they can’t expand without loans; the claim is that students simply won’t come if fees rise or loans aren’t expanded because “students can’t afford it”.  But on the face of it, that’s nonsense, as the costs for students elsewhere in the region are manifestly higher, and they are not thought to pose quite so severe a barrier.

The difference is entirely cultural, and has to do with collective saving mechanisms.  In Uganda, it is normal for a family to hit up their neighbours and co-workers for a few dollars each semester to help their kid get through school, which everyone does because they know that when it’s their turn to put a kid through school, the donation will be reciprocated.  In Tanzania, people will do the same to cover the cost of weddings or sometimes hospital fees, but not for tertiary education.  Locally, most people attribute this difference to the after-effects of the long period of socialism under President Julius Nyerere.  This view says that Tanzanians simply got used to government paying for everything, and citizens haven’t entirely adapted their thinking to the post-1990s reality.

I have no idea whether or not this is true, but it does beg some interesting policy questions: What’s the right policy to follow if a population has sub-optimal savings and investment habits?  Is there any practical  way to nudge a country from a Tanzania-ish state to a Ugandan one?  If not, are you stuck with permanently high tertiary education subsidies because households can’t be depended upon to contribute?

These are some serious questions, which have real implications here in Canada, too.  After all, wouldn’t Quebec universities be better off if Quebecers were a little more Ugandan and a little less Tanzanian?

Something to ponder, anyway.

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