Free tuition: Cape Breton University renews debate on whether it's viable in Canada

Students walk through the campus of Cape Breton University (Facebook) (Facebook)

It’s been three years since Canadians had a rousing national debate around the rising costs of a university education.

The last big dust up was in 2012, when students in Quebec took to the streets by the tens of thousands to loudly – and, ultimately, successfully – protest a plan to hike post-secondary fees across the province.

Now, it’s Nova Scotia’s turn to speak out, albeit in a much quieter voice (and, so far, no banging pots).

Earlier this month, officials at Cape Breton University (CBU) joined academics and students at the school in issuing an “urgent” call to eliminate tuition fees at all Canadian universities, similar to the zero-tuition model in Germany.

Proponents argue that high costs of university unfairly squeeze out thousands of qualified students who can’t afford the upfront costs and fear the financially crippling student-debt levels they’ll face post-graduation.

It’s a dire situation that, without a coordinated national education policy to guide us, poses “serious consequences for access and the future life chances of our students,” said David Wheeler, CBU president in a recent blog post.

More broadly, they argue the situation also threatens to undermine Canada’s competitiveness in the global market, and erodes the ability of universities to stay fresh and innovative.

No doubt, free tuition is an appealing concept. According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, tuition fees are expected to climb to nearly $7500 by 2017. In 1990, the average annual fee was closer to $1,500. Meanwhile, student debt hit $28.3 billion in 2012, up 44.1 per cent from 1999, according to Statistics Canada.

But not everyone believes it’s a model the country should adopt.

Among the critics is Ben Eisen, director of research and programs with the Halifax-based Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.

“The evidence suggests that most qualified students who wish to go to university have access,” he said in an interview with Yahoo Canada News.

His own research (part of a 2011 study for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy) found that participation rates among low-income families are generally no higher in provinces where tuition is cheapest (including Quebec, Manitoba and Newfoundland) than in provinces where fees are higher. Indeed, that paper concluded that Nova Scotia and Ontario, two of the priciest provinces to attend university, boasted the highest participation rates in Canada for young adults from low-income families.

“That doesn’t mean tuition can rise indefinitely,” said Eisen.

Drawing from examples in the United States, where tuition fees can range into the tens of thousands of dollars per year, there is a certain point where “very high tuition fees” can and do restrict access to only the wealthiest students.

But, he said, there’s no suggestion, especially with the availability of grants, scholarships, loans and tax credits available, that we’re anywhere near that point in any Canadian province.

Daniel Weinstock, a law professor at McGill University, said a widespread conversation around the value of post-secondary education, and who should have access, is much needed in Canada. But he cautioned against focusing too narrowly on tuition alone.

Already in Canada there is a two-tiered education system – one that favours privileged families who can afford to send their children to private schools and extends up to who attends university.

“I am at an elite university in Canada and, while it is certainly the case that we have bursaries and the cheap tuition in Quebec … our students are not a representative cross-section of society,” he said.

Weinstock isn’t a proponent of free tuition, however, he believes there are more imaginative ways to ensure that anyone who is qualified and wants to attend university can truly do so, without having that decision determined by one’s socio-economic status.

In Cape Breton, the discussion is just beginning to get lively as the university reaches out to academic institutions across the country for support.

As to who pick up the tuition tab should students be freed of that burden, that’s still up for debate.

Some have suggested raising the harmonized tax in Nova Scotia to cover the estimated $6 billion shortfall the zero-tuition model would create.

Others favour an Australian model where students pay for their education after they graduate at a rate determined by how much money they make.

In his blog, David Wheeler said a system of progressive taxation at the federal level, backed by needs-based living expense grants at the provincial level, “the most elegant solution.”

“Is this not exactly the debate we should be having in a federal election year in Canada?” he said.

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