Do High Tuition Fees Make for Good Public Policy?

Yesterday, I gave a presentation to Professor Ted Jackson’s graduate seminar course on higher education, taught in Carleton University’s School of Public Policy and Administration.  The link to my slide deck, titled “The Political Economy of Post-Secondary Education in Canada,” can be found here.

Points I raised in the presentation include the following:

-Tuition fees have been rising in Canada for roughly the past three decades.  Yet, individuals in the 25-44 age demographic have the highest levels of household debt in Canada.  This raises an important question: Is it good public policy to be saddling this demographic with more debt?

-Post-secondary participation has increased quite significantly in the past half century.  Yet, not all groups participate in post-secondary education (PSE) to the same extent.  For example, in Ontario, students from low-income households, students who are Aboriginal, students with disabilities and students from families with no prior history of PSE participation participate at significantly lower rates than the rest of the population.  This raises another key question: to what extent do high tuition fees exacerbate these gaps?

-In the aggregate, the ‘return on investment’ from PSE is favourable to students.  But, again, not all people fare equally well.  Some people appear to derive no return on investment at all from PSE; but (virtually) all students have to pay  high tuition fees up front.  This raises yet another question: how fair is it to make all students pay high tuition fees up front if they are not all going to gain financially from the investment?

-Over the past decade, there has been a significant rise in enrollment from international students at Canadian universities.  This is especially the case for students coming from China and India.  I believe that the major reason for this increase stems from the considerably higher tuition fees paid by international students at most Canadian universities.  This raises more questions: Are Canadian universities exploiting vulnerable students from the Global South?  If yes, would there, in effect, be less exploitation if these students paid lower tuition fees?

Research looking at the British Columbia context (done by Iglika Ivanova) suggests that, as a group, university students more than ‘pay back’ to the public treasury the cost of their university education through taxation after graduation (in part because university graduates are more inclined to be employed and be paying more taxes than others).  This raises (yes) more questions: If, as a group, university graduates more than ‘pay back’ the cost of their university education to the public treasury through taxation, why should they also pay up front via high tuition fees?  Isn’t this, in effect, a form of ‘double taxation?’

This post originally appeared on the Progressive Economics Forum.