HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

The Politics of Unfreezing Tuition

Freezing tuition is a terrible policy.  Free tuition is actually a better idea.  At least it’s based on a particular theory of access and public expenditure.  A tuition freeze is just a decision not to take any more decisions.  It’s a recipe for drift.

And what’s worse, the longer you let policy drift, the harder it is to stop drifting.  Case in point: Newfoundland.

To recap: In 2000, the province of Newfoundland decided to reduce tuition by 5% a year over four years and then freeze tuition thereafter.  And it’s been frozen ever since, with the agreement of all political parties.  The ostensible rationale for this is that it improves access to post-secondary (though in truth participation rates remain well below those in Ontario, where tuition is 3 times as expensive); in practice, what it’s done is reversed the flow of student from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia, bringing home their own students and attracting a few hundred new ones.  

As long as some of those new students were staying in province and helping reverse the long-term population loss, that was probably a good deal for the province.  Of course, no one actually tracked this to see if it was true and the policy was working, but that’s cool – this is Canadian postsecondary policy and we’re used to never evaluating the success of a program.  But now that oil revenues have plummeted and unemployment seems headed back towards 20%, it’s harder to maintain that this is happening, and so the cost of the tuition pledge seems to outweigh the benefit.  And given the government is currently spending roughly 33% more than it is taking in tax revenue, time for a change of policy, right?

Wrong.  In last week’s budget, the government raised all sorts of fees related to apprenticeship, which tends to heart lower-income learners.  It cut student aid, turning part of its vaunted grants programs into loans, which also hurt lower-income learners.  And it cut $14 million from Memorial’s budget.  But God forbid it touch tuition.  Upper middle-class people pay that stuff. Nuh-uh, no way, not touching.

Actually it’s somewhat worse than that.  The government didn’t touch tuition, but instead started making noises about how Memorial has always had the ability to set it’s own tuition (nudge, nudge) and of course the government expected to do what was right for students (wink wink).  I mean, first of all this is nonsense – the tuition freeze promise has been formally written into every provincial budget since 2000 – and second of all it’s unbelievably cowardly.  Unable to muster the political courage to get rid of tuition on its own, the government is reduced to pleading for the university to do something (but maybe not too much) to help it out of a jam.  I suspect if Memorial weren’t so broke ($54 million in cuts over two years, if you include cuts to the pension plan) it would tell the province to grab a chair and then rotate at an ever-increasing speed around that idea.  I know I would.

But the point is this: even a new government, with a massive majority in the legislature, facing the biggest fiscal emergency in twenty years, and having the courage to cut all sorts of programs still doesn’t have the courage to touch tuition.  It will touch all sorts of things which hurt the less-fortunate, but not tuition.  The upper middle-class defends its privileges to the last.  Which is precisely why those privileges shouldn’t be given out in the first place.

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