Since the federal funding cuts of the 1990s, an increasing proportion of the cost of post-secondary education has been passed on to students. Government grants used to cover up to 80 percent of an institution’s operating budget nearly 30 years ago, they now cover roughly 50 percent, with tuition fees making up the difference.
In the last fifteen years, tuition fees have become one of the largest expenses for university and college students, increasing, on average, over five times the rate of inflation. High tuition fees limit access to post-secondary education for students from low- and middle-income backgrounds. At their current rate of increase, tuition fees are estimated to exceed all other student expenses combined in five years.
Statistics Canada has determined that students from low-income families are less than half as likely as those from high-income households to pursue a university education.
Statistics Canada has also found that the most frequently-reported reason high school students did not pursue post-secondary education was financial.
Tuition fees act as a flat tax—a cost applied to all students at the same rate, regardless of their financial resources. While some argue that post-secondary education will significantly increase a student’s long-term earning potential by up to $1 million, thus justifying tuition fee increases, the reality is very different.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports that male graduates earn only an additional $80,000 over their lifetime. The return is substantially lower for female graduates who, on average, earn only an additional $46,000.
Given that at least 70 percent of new jobs require some form of post-secondary education, higher education is increasingly becoming a prerequisite for participating in the labour market and for earning an average income. It is not a guarantee of future wealth.
The fairest method of financing post-secondary education is through a progressive income tax system.
Such a system ensures that the wealthy and poor are taxed in a fair manner by reflecting their respective ability to contribute and the subsequent personal economic benefit obtained as a result of their education.
Canadians have made it clear that they are comfortable with increased government spending to improve access to education. According to a recent Harris/Decima public opinion poll, Canadians rank tuition fee reductions as the top priority for government investment in education.
The same poll also found that 67 percent of Canadians want the federal government to exercise more control over transfers to the provinces for post-secondary education.