As we wait for the provincial budget to be released, one of the ideas being mused about is the removal of the cap on post-secondary tuition, which is currently tied to the rate of inflation. I believe that this would be the wrong move for a number of reasons.
Benefits of a Tuition Cap
There are many benefits to the existing tuition caps.Tuition caps promote better accessibility to post-secondary education for everyone whose marks merit access, and make it easier to attract prospective students. Alberta already has the lowest rate of post-secondary uptake in the country - but keeping tuition low leads to a demonstrably higher rate of post-secondary uptake and subsequently, a higher rate of post-secondary graduation. This will also help schools financially by providing a more stable revenue base of students when uptake increases. And clearly it helps families financially, who are having to saving more and more and more- but more on that later.
Low tuition also brings a lot of benefit to Edmontonians and Albertans that are unaffiliated with post-secondary institutions. Cities with a high proportion of university educated people report a higher quality of life overall, and businesses are more likely to invest in places where they know there is a stable educated workforce. With a decrease or neutral change to the cost of attending post-secondary, graduates and their families will be more likely to make major purchases that contribute to the province’s economic well-being. These are just a few of the benefits of a low rate of tuition, but I think it’s clear that keeping post-secondary affordable is of benefit to everyone in Alberta.
Value to Our City and Our Province
For Edmonton, there is no question that institutions like MacEwan, U of A and NAIT add vibrancy to the fabric of our City. Their vitality brings new people to Edmonton, and provides students with the skills and education needed to be successful. Cities are the engine of our economy - to stay on top, we need to have a creative and educated workforce to attract new business and new innovation.
Job requirements are becoming increasingly competitive. In many cases, at least one post-secondary degree is a requirement for entry into well-paying fields of work. But for families who want to contribute to their child’s education, the financial burden is growing quickly. I know I worry about what tuition will look like when my kids go to school in 10 years, and I think a lot of other Albertan families do too.
It doesn’t need to be cheap, but it shouldn’t be a luxury
Where I grew up, pursuing post-secondary education wasn’t a given - it was a luxury that few people could afford. I attended university for a year and a half before the weight of my student debt on me and my family became too much. This is why accessibility is about more than just having the spots available for students. When you come from limited means, taking on that much debt becomes even more daunting. This is one of the reasons why removing tuition caps would disproportionately impact low-income families and individuals.
While “being the least expensive” shouldn’t be our paramount consideration, affordability and access are critical to encouraging young people from all backgrounds to become University educated. First off, we aren’t the cheapest. Quebec and British Columbia both have top rate universities that are charging less on average for tuition than we are. Some may argue that we can only achieve excellence by charging more, but universities like UVic and UBC always rank among the highest in Canadian universities for student satisfaction and program outcomes, but don’t charge as much tuition.
There are fairer options
I recognize that post-secondary institutes do need some latitude to increase revenues in difficult economic times. But to an extent, they already have that leeway, and have been using it. The U of A has implemented new market modifier fees to programs in both 2011 and 2015. Market modifiers are completely unregulated, and have allowed the costs of going to school in certain programs to rise astronomically. One could be forgiven for worrying that universities and college will abuse their power if tuition is back on the table.
We all know that the provincial budget this year is going to require some tough choices, but in my view this shouldn’t be a choice at all. The removal of tuition caps won’t do much good for the budget, while instituting other measures, like the progressive tax system used in Saskatchewan, could yield significant results. But removing the caps would do an inordinate amount of harm. The negative impact of removing tuition caps would affect Alberta’s economy for many years to come by making the province less attractive to investors and to young people. Let’s do the right thing here, and keep education in Alberta within reach for as many people as possible.