The cost of post-secondary education in Canada has more than quadrupled since 1990, according to a study released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives earlier this month. The 41-page report, entitled Degrees of Uncertainty, found that national average university tuition fees “have increased from $1,464 in 1990-91 to $6,348 in 2012-13.”
Fees are expected to continue rising in the future. The report predicts average tuition costs across the country will hit $6,610 this fall. In 2016-17 fees are expected to rise to $6,842 after adjusting for inflation.
Manitoba still has relatively low tuition when compared with the rest of Canada, with fees in this province averaging $4,175 in the last academic year. Ontario was the most expensive province for 2012-13 with average fees of $8,062, while Newfoundland and Labrador was the least expensive at $2,867.
The report says that while fees have risen, provinces have responded with measures such as grants and tax credits to help offset the costs. However, this has resulted in a myriad of policies and programs which make the financial cost of university for students much more unpredictable.
The report contends that “Financial assistance applied in this manner is anything but certain; programs can change or be eliminated at any time, while the only thing students can be relatively certain of is that fees will likely continue to increase.”
Last year, the provincial NDP government introduced the Protecting Affordability for University Students Act, a bill the NDP says will help keep tuition affordable for students. However, Bilan Arte of the Manitoba executive of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) is critical of the legislation.
She argued that the legislation does little to hold down the cost of post-secondary education. Fees for undergrads in non-professionally designated programs will see their tuition rates increase at the rate of inflation, but ancillary fees will not be capped in such a way. For degrees that have a professional designation (engineering, nursing, etc.), graduate studies, and for international students, increases will likely be much higher as they are not covered by the legislation.
“International students, grad students, and professional programs can see their fees increased at the institution’s whim. Fifty-three per cent [of students] are facing an indefinite increase because they’re from these programs, while the rest of students will see fees increase at least as high as inflation, if not higher,” she said.
CFS is advocating for a national strategy for post-secondary education. Arte claimed that Canada is one of the few developed countries without such a strategy. CFS is trying to link the issue of affordable education with other issues – Arte indicated that educated people tend to be healthier and more productive. According to Arte, investing in education means saving on other things down the road, such as criminal justice and health care costs.
Arte recalled how CFS championed the idea of the tuition freeze in the early 1990s, and then subsequently saw it adopted in the language of some of the major party’s platforms. When the NDP came to power in Manitoba in 1999, they carried through on a campaign promise and adopted a tuition freeze. The freeze was dropped in 2009 and Manitoba has since seen its fees rise.
Overall federal student debt levels in Canada stand at just over $15 billion.