Tuition fees are always a big concern among students and their families.
In an election season, when every vote counts, political parties make sure that they have something to say about this in their platforms.
After having deregulated fees during their first term starting in 2002, the B.C. Liberals are pledging to continue with capping increases to the rate of inflation. The NDP is promising a freeze, while the B.C. Greens would roll back fees by 20 percent. The B.C. Conservatives would give tax incentives to new graduates moving into industries with skills shortages.
They’re all saying that they want British Columbians to have affordable postsecondary education. But according to Robert Clift, executive director of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of B.C., there’s one thing that the parties aren’t telling voters.
“We don’t know what they think is affordable,” Clift told the Georgia Straight. “That’s all relative, right? What’s your measure? What’s affordable?”
There has been no mention of one of the recommendations made two years ago by former attorney general Geoff Plant following his review of the province’s postsecondary education system. In his Campus 2020 report, Plant proposed that fees should be tied to the cost of education through a B.C.-specific “higher education price index” rather than to inflation.
In the 2008-2009 academic year, Canadian full-time undergraduate students paid, on average, 3.6 percent more in tuition fees compared to the previous year, according to Statistics Canada. This increase followed a 2.8-percent rise in fees in 2007-2008.
Last year in B.C., tuition fees collected by colleges and universities totalled $1.1 billion, comprising about 20 percent of revenues by these institutions.
Another way of dealing with tuition fees is to peg these on income and the ability of families to pay, Clift said.
“It’s like when you go and get a mortgage, they tell you can’t have more than 25 percent of your income going to housing,” he explained. “So we might say, you know, no more than”¦five percent, 10 percent of family income. You shouldn’t have to pay more than that for tuition fees.”
Clift believes this system makes the most sense, although he noted that none of the four largest political parties are taking this approach.
“In the case of the entire tuition fee, student financial-aid issue, nobody has any big goals,” Clift noted. “It’s all kind of situational and opportunist.”
The B.C. branch of the Canadian Federation of Students has quite a list of complaints about the eight-year record of Premier Gordon Campbell and his B.C. Liberals. These include the massive increase in tuition fees from an average of $2,500 in 2001 to more than $5,000; the elimination of a grant program in 2004; the reduction of per-student funding; and the rise of average student debt to more than $27,000 per person.
CFS–B.C. chair Shamus Reid told the Straight that his group is calling for a 10-percent reduction in tuition fees as well as a plan to progressively reduce fees over the next several years.
B.C. has the fifth-highest tuition fees, on average, across the country, according to StatsCan figures. “Eight years ago, we were the second-lowest in the country, and we want to be moving in that direction,” Reid said.
He noted that Clift’s formula of an income- and ability-based formula to determine how much students should pay isn’t too far from what CFS–B.C. is advocating.
“Our position is that people should pay for their education but they should pay when they can afford it,” Reid said. “If we reduce the upfront barriers and when people go through the education system without those barriers impacting their ability to get an education and come out the other side, that results in generally higher incomes and you pay that back in taxes. And that is the most progressive way to fund an education system, because it means nobody faces that barrier upfront.”
For Clift, the issue boils down to parties defining the basis to set tuition fees. “We need some kind of commitment,” he said. “Nobody’s telling us what the ground rules are.”
Average undergraduate tuition fees in 2008-2009
> Canada-wide: $4,724
> Quebec: $2,167
> Newfoundland and Labrador: $2,632
> Manitoba: $3,276
> Prince Edward Island: $4,530
> Saskatchewan: $5,015
> British Columbia: $5,040
> Alberta: $5,361
> New Brunswick: $5,590
> Ontario: $5,643
> Nova Scotia: $5,932
Source: Statistics Canada