Skip to main content

Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance president Meaghan Coker at the University of Toronto on July 23rd, 2010.

As students and parents get set to write this fall's tuition cheques, a group that represents Ontario undergraduates wants them to realize they are carrying an increasing portion of the cost of that education.

Universities in Canada's largest province are moving toward a point where they collect as much money or more from students in tuition and fees as they do from government in operating grants, the students say. That's a fact that raises questions about what it means to be a public university and represents a milestone that campuses are passing without sufficient public debate, the group worries.

"You have to ask yourself at what point do we start losing our public university model that we cherish so much," said Meaghan Coker, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance. "What is concerning is we are moving away from that model and there is a lack of recognition of what is happening."

Already one campus, the University of Waterloo, brings in more money in tuition and student fees than it collects in provincial grants. Others expect to reach that tipping point in a year or two, according to the latest budget forecasts.

While conditions are different in every province, a recent study by TD Economics points to a similar nationwide trend. Across Canada, tuition fees accounted for 36 per cent of university revenue in 2005, up from just 13 per cent in 1980, the study found. Recent investments by some governments have reversed that trajectory slightly, but the report, prepared by former chief economist Don Drummond, notes that in Canada, public contributions to postsecondary education lag behind other OECD countries.

At Halifax's Dalhousie University, tuition revenues bring in roughly 30 per cent of the budget. At Montreal's McGill University, tuition and fees account for 27 per cent of operating revenues, and at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, tuition and fees make up 24 per cent of the operating budget.

In the case of Ontario, the shift in funding is even more startling because it comes at a time when the province has spent billions more on postsecondary education. But those investments coincided with the arrival of thousands more students on campuses.

The result was money was used to pay for rising enrolment, putting Ontario at the very bottom among the provinces on per student spending on postsecondary education. At the same time, as provincial spending went up, tuition and ancillary fees increased even faster, leaving students to shoulder an increasing share of the cost of their education.

By 2008, Ontario students, on average, were responsible for 43 per cent of university revenues through the tuition and fees they paid, up from 19 per cent in 1988, according to research done for the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. The province offers a slightly different number that puts the amount covered by tuition at closer to 40 per cent.

Given these figures, the undergraduate group says it's time to discuss how we define a public system, and the impact of this shift on issues such as student access and institutional accountability. While they are asking for more debate, what they really want is a return to a cost-sharing model that has students paying no more than one-third of the price of their education.

Ms. Coker, a student at the University of Western Ontario, knows some will argue that students reap huge rewards from their degrees and should shell out a bigger share of the cost, especially at a time when governments are struggling with mounting debt. In response, she rhymes off a long list of figures, including the greater share of taxes paid by university grads, that benefit everyone. The present financial situation is no reason to brush aside debate on what amounts to a gradual move toward privatization, she says.

"This is only the start," she predicted. "Students are going to be more and more responsible for funding the university."

At the University of Waterloo, provost Feridun Hamdullahpur says the shift in revenue is the result of the school's unique mix of high-demand professional programs, which are permitted by the province to charge higher fees. The university, which has large engineering and computer science faculties, is expecting tuition to total $220-million this year, with provincial grants forecast at $213-million, the second year fees will outpace public funding.

"It is our obligation to offer top academic programs - it costs us and this is the way we are able to fund them," Dr. Hamdullahpur said. The shift in revenue is the result of a planning process designed to "maximize tuition fees," he said, stressing that the money is reinvested in the university.

The University of Toronto also expected the balance to tip between tuition and provincial grants this year, but an extra $16-million in last-minute provincial funding warded off that shift, at least temporarily.

"The bottom line is we are being squeezed," U of T provost Cheryl Misak said. "I can't imagine the situation is much different at any Ontario university."

Interact with The Globe