No discussion of tuition fees can be complete without a careful examination of the complete package of university funding. No discussion of university funding can be undertaken without understanding the social policy framework (or lack thereof) that underlies the university system. Canada’s universities are publicly funded. This is a model that was adopted, for the most part, in the 1960s, and the public portion of the funding model has become increasingly important since that time. There is, unfortunately, no systemic policy for Canadian post- secondary education. Part of the problem lies in the consti- tutional framework.

Policy development is hindered in Canada by the con- stitutional division of legislative authority. Education is a provincial matter. Canada’s constitutional history has been marked by incessant jockeying for position, with provincial governments seeking to expand their jurisdic- tion, staunchly opposed by the federal government, which, in addition to its legal interest in maintaining its – jurisdiction, has been quite inventive in the use of its spending power to achieve de facto entry into fields that may well be legally inaccessible.

The constitutional tensions that have marked Canada’s 136-year history have made it all but impossible to develop a concerted approach to one of the most impor- tant issues that will face the country in the future. As glob- alization increases, and with it the need to compete with other countries that are accelerating their own education- al development, weaknesses in the Canadian model have become evident.

That governments should educate their populations as a fundamental priority is little short of self-evident. The failure to do so is a prescription for decreasing our ability to compete effectively that seems equally self-evident. The inability of Canadian governments to meet these chal- lenges is a marked failure at national and provincial levels. Without a solid policy foundation, actions are doomed to be ad hoc, rather than proactive and anticipatory. There must be a national commitment to first class education with clear objec- tives. Proper financing of that com- mitment can be achieved only once we know where we want to be.

If there was an identified policy, it would be much easier to consider the role of tuition fees. It would be possible to consider the mix of gov- ernmental support, private endow- ment support, revenue-generating activities (such as research) and the contribution, in the form of tuition, by students. There can be little doubt that students have some responsibili- ty to pay for the education they receive, although there are occasion- al positions adopted by student organizations which insist that all education should be ”œfree” and that students should have no financial obligations.

While I acknowledge a personal predisposition to the philosophy that students should pay a more significant portion of the costs of their education, in the final analsis, I do not care where the necessary funds are derived, provided that they are adquate and are made available to fund education which is first-class, measured on a world scale. If the model Canada opts for is one that provides free education for students, despite the wealth of evidence that such a model does not work, so be it. Of course, nothing is ”œfree.” But, if our collective desire is that students, individually, should not have to pay any, or any signifi- cant, tuition fees and that the costs recovered through such fees are to be collected from the public at large through their taxes, so be it.

The difficulty, of course, is that by their nature, governments are not capable of insisting that funding must be tied to excellence. They seem to be able to fund access to the uni- versity system, but they cannot take the next step of getting that system to the cutting edge of the search for knowledge. And if we are not at the cutting edge, Canada will inevitably become second class, or worse. If our university graduates cannot compete with their counterparts from the rest of the world, we will descend once again to a quasi-colonial status, not as the colony of a particular power, but as followers, not leaders, while those whose systems have responded to the challenges of the modern world will occupy the positions in which deci- sions are made. In recent years, Canada as a whole, and Quebec in particular, have pursued courses of action that appear almost deliberately designed to bring about such a result. Public funding of excellence has dropped precipitously and tuition fees have been frozen or capped at levels that make the total resources available manifestly unequal to the challenges we face.

There are, of course, universities and there are universities. Not all are research intensive nor do they pur- port to have such a mission. A small liberal arts college or university has an important role to play within an overall system of post-secondary edu- cation. It does not have and does not need the expensive infrastructure of one that has a research mission. The country needs, however, a network of major universities that can generate the critical mass necessary for scien- tific and other research. In such cases, the funding of research should be based on performance at the high- est levels, measured on a world scale. If the performance does not merit support, the support should not be forthcoming.

Governments have made the short- and even medium-term deci- sion that it would be politically unpopular to increase tuition fees. In Quebec, for example, tuition fees have been frozen at $1,668 since 1994. The tuition fees I paid in 1960 at McGill were about $650 per year. With only basic inflation applied to that figure, it would be $4,362 in 2003 ”” essentially today’s tuition fees at Ontario universities. I borrowed a portion of my tuition and living expenses while at university and when I finished in 1967, I had an aggregate debt of about $9,000. Similarly extrapolated, that would amount, in 2003, to $52,000. I paid it off over several years and con- sidered the whole matter a bar- gain of inestimable value. I did not regard the accumulation of a debt that was of the same order as a reasonably expen- sive car loan as an unfair bur- den to assume.

Students appear to have allowed themselves to mis- characterize the problem and, indeed, have almost been encouraged by the political authorities to do so. A rise in tuition fees has been painted as a hur- dle to access to higher education. If tuition fees are raised, they maintain, it will become a barrier to those with- out the present means to afford them. The available data do not support such a conclusion. All recent propos- als to increase tuition fees have, invariably, been accompanied by par- allel programs of increased financial assistance to those who require it. It would be no stretch for Canadian uni- versities to adopt the principle that a way will be found to ensure that any student who meets the academic requirements will be able to accept admission, regardless of current financial circumstances. A combina- tion of loans, bursaries, scholarships, on-campus employment, summer employment and family contribu- tions based on ability to pay can be found to make this possible. This technique has been applied with suc- cess in many of the finest universities in the United States. But essential to this is that some financial responsibil- ity be assumed by the students and their families.

Based on the observation of gov- ernment tendencies to date, stu- dents are rightly suspicious that increases in tuition fees may be used by governments as an excuse to fur- ther cut back further government con- tributions. In that respect, students are worried that tuition increases will be the sole response to university funding problems. The more mature student advocates acknowledge that they must be part of the solution, but not the whole solution; the more rad- ical groups insist that the state has a duty to pay all the costs of their edu- cation and that students should assume no financial responsibility. It would be comforting to believe that the mantra of the latter is merely a bargaining ploy, but no evidence of such an underlying strategy has been evident to date. Student groups have been unable to develop a unified approach to an issue that may have a profound effect on their futures. Much of the agenda is captured by advocates of full state support, and student groups have been at pains to threaten political parties with with- drawal of support if tuition fees are raised. This focus on a single dimen- sion of a complex problem has exacer- bated the difficulties of developing and implementing a co-ordinated approach to higher education.

Governments have resorted to sta- tistical measurement as a substitute for policy. Thus, for example, the percent- age of students who graduate from each program is seen as more signifi- cant than the content of the program and its relevance in their education. The number of years it takes for a doc- toral student is, apparently, more sig- nificant to governments than the original research that is being done, or the courses that a student may teach in the course of pursuing a doctorate. It is a classic attempt to bureaucratize a process that, in many respects, does not lend itself to such measurement. In the meantime, the pressing need for strategic policy development remains unanswered.

While I believe that one of the highest duties of any government is to ensure that its citizens are properly edu- cated, I recognize that Canadian gov- ernments have also made commitments to other social programs, chief amongst which is health care. The standards of such care that Canadians have come to expect, when combined with the demographics that will exist for the medium future, bring with them a cost that is all but ruinous. It may well be that, as a country, despite our high standard of living, we simply cannot afford such a platform. This is a debate that goes well beyond the scope of this contribution, although it is already clear that the levels of Canadian taxa- tion are placing competitive disadvan- tages on the economy. As it relates to the question of tuition fees, however, if the prime consideration of govern- ments is to be weighted more heavily in the direction of health care, at the expense of higher education, govern- ments must admit that fact. The value judgments reflected in such a choice are certainly defensible. At the same time, however, governments must permit universities to find the additional rev- enues necessary to provide world class education. They must not persist with artificial ”œcaps” on tuition fees, espe- cially on the spurious ground of dimin- ished access to the university system, or, worse, on venal political expediency. Provincial governments must be willing to work with the federal government, and vice versa, to find imaginative and co-operative ways of providing the nec- essary resources while allowing the con- stitutional niceties to be observed.

Nor are universities themselves to be left out as part of the solution. There are many inefficiencies, even considering the special nature of the university environment, that should be addressed. While it is not possible to ”œsave” your way into prosperity; just as in the case of businesses, universities must seek ways to accomplish their missions as inexpensively as possible. There are duplica- tions that can be eliminated. There may be programs that are too esoteric and too narrow to be offered on a regular basis. No universi- ty can be all things to all people, and they must seek to provide opportuni- ties in fields where they can offer the best. If they cannot deliver excellence, they must either become excellent or eliminate the programs. Being ”œpretty good” is no longer acceptable.

Some universities are beginning to consider at least partial ”œprivatiza- tion,” principally in those programs that lead to higher-paying jobs, such as in medicine, law and management. This has led to markedly higher tuition fees, in which market judg- ments come into play. If they get the pricing wrong, they will lose students. Such measures are a further sign that government funding has not been able to keep pace with providing the resources students will need if they are to be successful.

The research-intensive universities have recently led an initiative with the federal government to direct more research funding to universities, to rec- ognize and provide for the indirect costs of research assumed by universi- ties and to provide funds to attract leading scholars and researchers. These have been welcome developments and are proving to be extremely effective. Even more important has been the acknowledgment that the focus must be on excellence and special funding, directed at centres of excellence, has become an important stimulus to such academic and research activity. The reality of politics, however, remains a factor that prevents full recognition of where excellence exists, with the result that some performance that is demon- strably short of excellent is neverthe- less rewarded, but at least a significant portion of the funds gets to where it belongs. Granting agencies should be further encouraged to be as rigorous as possible in their insistence on real excellence, rather than realpolitik, when allocating the financial loaves and fishes. We are not in a domestic contest. We are in a world contest.

Back to tuition. I do not believe that the vast majority of Canadians accept the proposition that university students are ”œentitled” to free education. The students will bene- fit from the process and they should have an obligation to pay a fair share of the related costs. By the same token, nor do I believe that the public consid- ers that students should assume the entire cost. There is an element of pub- lic obligation to encourage as much education as possible and to make a significant contribution to the cost, in the interests of society as a whole. The private sector has its own interest in ensuring that the people they hire are capable, well trained and allow it to compete in a rapidly shrinking world. It can contribute financially, provide summer employment to students, establish scholarships and bursaries to deserving students, engage in co- operative programs of study and work, and a host of other possibilities. Students have their own duty to ensure that universities are able to pro- vide them with the level of education they will need. They must recognize that there is a world-wide competition to attract the best minds to the univer- sity, a competition that is unprece- dented and increasingly expensive, not just on an institution-by- institution basis, but also into acade- mia itself, as opposed to the private sector. The quality of their education will, in large measure, vary directly with the quality of those who guide them. This is an obligation of present students, as well as former students. The first time a senior personnel man- ager expresses the general view that a Canadian university degree does not match the requirements of today’s society, incalculable damage will be done to current and past students, whose degrees will be discounted as second rate. It will take years to over- come such a stigma.

What is needed is a mechanism that will enable us to determine what it costs for a first class education and to commit, collectively, to the funding of those costs. Ideally, this will be a com- bination of the public sector, the pri- vate sector and students, who will agree, perhaps, on the percentage of the costs, whatever they may be, that each will absorb. I do not much care what the percentages are, so long as the com- mitment to excellence is fundamental to the solution. If our average cost is now, say, $12,000 per year and it is determined that it should be, say, $20,000, one model might be that the governments will pay half, the private sector a quarter and the students a quar- ter. The costs should be reviewed peri- odically and the appropriate figure determined, with the requisite changes assumed on the same basis.

Make no mistake: the problem is serious and must be addressed forth- with. No other country is standing still. The forces of competition are implacable and they will take advan- tage of weakness. A failure to invest in the future of this country can neither be ignored nor explained away. The time to act is now, proactively, not in some paroxysm of reaction after the fact. There is no one reading this arti- cle who is unaffected by this crisis, nor who is without a duty to do some- thing about it.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License