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Career outcomes can't be sole measure of a university education

Is university tuition in Canada becoming an unaffordable proposition for the middle-class? A study last week from the Centre for Policy Alternatives compared the rise in fees to the rise in the minimum wage and concluded that students have to flip 2.5 more burgers now than in 1975 to pay for school fees.

But wait! Once you figure in the fee rebates (like Ontario's 30 per cent off and other provincial grants), the sticker price goes down. And are university students working in the summer really only making minimum wage? Adjusting the numbers would not end the debate, though – the cost of university has never been just about the figures, but also about the message. Paying for something transforms it, changes the position of payer and recipient from something potentially approaching a mutal arrangement to something where services are owed for money rendered. As the figures on the tuition invoice have climbed, so has the sense that the money spent on university should be treated like any other investment in the stock market.

This is not an argument for free university tuition, which will never happen in Canada and would lead to the collapse of our postsecondary institutions – universities and colleges. Also, paying for something has a way of adding the necessary urgency to that essay on Machiavelli that tens of thousands of undergrads have written before you.

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In the bean-counting, however, something is lost. Every part of the learning process has become a step toward the goal of being financially stable; every small failure on that path is magnified. High-school students have little tolerance for the lower marks awaiting them in university and many petition their professors to raise them. Law schools and graduate schools await.

In this system, professors workload is re-examined. What are they doing for that five or six or seven grand in undergrad tuition anyway? The question may be fair – last week, new figures from Statistics Canada showed that spending on salaries for faculty and administration has just about doubled in the last decade – but it emphasizes the nature of the transaction. It works the other way too.

As a higher percentage of university revenue comes from student fees, universities are expanding their courses to include more entrepreneurial and experiential learning. Graduates of universities will no longer come out equipped to debate the nature of capitalism, they will come out ready to take their part in it.

We don't see what is lost in this framework because tuition has been with us for so long that we've adjusted. Families start to save when a child is born and decide on the field of study he or she will pursue by high-school – the families of the lucky kids who have the means to save and the will to plan.

But the current debates over the level of tuition are arguing around the edges of a spiral that few countries have avoided. Tuition has gone up relative to income. While Germany ended its experiment with university fees returning to free postsecondary education, the U.K. tripled theirs and introduced an income-contingent repayment scheme. It's not going so well. The latest estimate have graduates repaying debt until their 40s or 50s.

One of the things that the somewhat aimless, relatively debt-free students of the past used to argue about was the concept of fairness. However we resolve the question of how future generations will pay, if we make postsecondary education so expensive that the only thing worth arguing about will be which job is most effective at paying off the debt incurred, then the investment won't be worth anything at all.

Simona Chiose is The Globe and Mail's education editor. You can follow her on Twitter.

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