Higher Education Strategy Associates

Worst Back-to-School Article, 2012 Edition

Carol Goar from the Toronto Star, take a bow. Your article “Ontario students paying more but getting less” wins my vote as the most facile, ill-informed article of la rentrée.

The article contains two basic screw-ups which merit the award.

First, the “paying more” bit. Her contention is that the average tuition fee has risen $4182 since when Mike Harris was elected. The figure is correct, but unadjusted for inflation. When you actually compare apples to apples – as any first-year econ student would do – you lop 35% off the increase; in real dollars the tuition increase is actually $2718.

But that’s not all; Goar chooses to completely ignore offsetting subsidies, which have ballooned over the past fifteen years. In 1995-96, the province’s expenditure on grants and loan remission was $350/student; now, it’s $1,544. In 1995-96, the average student (or their parents) received about $1100 in tax credits. Now that figure is just over $2100. In other words, if you take subsidies into account, the net increase in real tuition over 15 years was… $600. Or, if you prefer, $40/year. Clearly, a $600 increase is a lot harder to spin as a Bad Thing than a $4182 increase. So the question is: did Goar use the higher figure because she deliberately wanted to sensationalize a subject, or because she is totally clueless about subsidies and inflation-adjustment?

The other way Goar screws up is in looking at the benefits. For some reason she seems focused on the increasingly crowded classroom. And yes, they’re a problem until you realize that the reason they’re crowded is because there are vastly more students attending university than was the case fifteen years ago. In raw numbers, there are 160,000 more university students in Ontario than there were when Harris was elected. The system has grown by 58%. The participation rate is 33% instead of 21%.

Obviously, it would be better if we could accommodate this massive growth without cutting corners, so you can’t say it’s an unalloyed triumph. But to claim it’s a disaster? Come on.

By the time you reach Goar’s conclusion, which essentially is that asking students to pay an extra $40/year to help fund a massive increase in access is evidence of “the quiet death of society’s commitment to ensure that each generation does better than the last,” you’re left either one of two conclusions. Does she genuinely believe that life was better when there were fewer people being educated? Or does she really not understand how little tuition has increased and how much access has improved? Either way, it’s a disastrous article, well deserving of this year’s award.

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2 Responses to Worst Back-to-School Article, 2012 Edition

  1. D J Hutchinson says:

    Classroom crowding – certainly one explanation is that there are more students, but at the same time what has happened to the number of professors? and the number of Teaching Assistants?
    Since 1995-96, in my department as an example, the number of undergraduate students has doubled, the number of graduate students is the same, but the number of full-time faculty members dropped to 75% of the number employed at that time. We have hired 1 new professor in the last 10 years.
    The faculty are teaching more, have more lab sections and contact hours, and are working as creatively as possible to maintain the quality of our program.
    The required number of Teaching Assistants has risen as the classes have grown in size. The amount of funding we receive to hire these graduate and undergraduate students has dropped dramatically. We now receive less than half of the budget we require to hire these essential personnel.
    Thankfully, companies and alumni have responded to our appeal to help fund this basic part of a student’s education, to help us to maintain the high quality access to labs and field teaching environments that they enjoyed and have benefitted from.
    Our graduates have 2 to 3 job offers upon graduation to choose from – a testament to the need for these trained professionals, and a testament to the enduring quality of our program. So, no argument that we need to increase the number of spaces in our program.
    Meanwhile, faculty are expected to perform at a higher level in their research, with federal granting agencies cutting programs.
    So the question of classroom crowding and quality of education is certainly not just as simple as an evaluation of the number of students in the room.
    Perhaps the problem is that only $40/yr has been spent to fund this massive increase in access?

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