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CAUT Bulletin Archives

November 1997

Are Rising Tuition Fees Squeezing Out Students?

The harsh reality of rising tuition fees is taking its toll on post-secondary students as student debt rises and enrolments decline.

A recent article, by Statistics Canada analyst Don Little,1 has fuelled a debate focusing on the complex relationship between post-secondary enrolments and tuition fees.

Little demonstrated that until the early nineties, even while fees rose, universities enjoyed a long period of substantial growth in enrolment. Since 1993, however, enrolments have plateaued, and then declined to 651,249 full-time equivalent enrolments in 1995 (of 573,185 full-time and 273,225 part-time students). In 1996 and 1997 many universities reported further declines in enrolment of between one and three per cent.

What contributed to the long period of enrolment increases and why is it now tapering off?

According to Statistics Canada data not featured in Little's report, the increase in university enrolments during the past two decades is overwhelmingly due to greater numbers of women seeking better futures through higher education. For example, while full-time enrolment of men increased by 25 per cent between 1975 and 1995, full-time enrolment for women increased by 107 per cent, resulting in overall growth of over 50 per cent. In 1975, almost 60 per cent of full-time students were men. By 1995, approximately 57 per cent were women. Similarly, while the same twenty-year period saw a 31 per cent increase in part-time enrolment for men, there was an 89 per cent increase for women.

Some fluctuations in student participation rates are due to changing job opportunities. During recessions with high unemployment, more people turn to education as a means to improve their qualifications. Conversely, when the economy is improving, fewer people are willing to forgo lost income to pursue a better education.

It is possible that the post-secondary education system is approaching a steady state, and that participation rates will not increase substantially over current levels of 18-19 per cent of 19- to 24-year-olds.

However, recent slowdowns and declines in enrolment over the last five years are also influenced by large increases in tuition. Further increases in fees will accelerate the decline in enrolment and will mean reduced accessibility to higher education for many potential students.

Students from less advantaged backgrounds are hardest hit by steeper fees. To date, little statistical information about students' social background has been collected, and this is one area to be examined by the new Centre for Education Statistics and Human Resources Development Canada. But commentators are beginning to ask a question not often heard since the late 1970s: where are the students from low-income families?

The phenomenon of plateaus or declines in post-secondary enrolment is already worrisome. But if the impact of increasing tuition fees is harshest for low-income families, there may be even more reasons for worry.

Little reported that average university student tuition fees rose by 62 per cent in real terms between 1990 and 1995. In 1997-98, fees across Canada rose by an average of nine per cent. Fee levels vary by province, institution and program. This year, full-time undergraduate arts students are paying an average of $3,117 per year, not counting supplies, living and accommodation costs.2

Increases in tuition fees, coupled with changes to the Canada Student Loans Program, have contributed to a high rate of debt among university graduates. In 1996, a federal task force on youth estimated that by 1998 many students will begin their careers with personal educational debts of $25,000, up from $8,700 eight years earlier.3 In Quebec, where fees are lower and there is still a strong grant system rather than a loan system, the typical debt is closer to $8,000. If fees continue to rise, debt load will become even heavier. Prospective students may become reluctant to attain a higher education at the price of starting a working career with such a burden.

For institutions, tuition fee revenues have grown in importance so that they now account for almost 25 per cent of general operating funds, up from 13 per cent in 1980. Higher fee revenues derive from a mixture of larger enrolments as well as higher student fees. At the same time, the government share of the funding pie shrank from 84 per cent in 1980 to 72 per cent in 1995.

The pattern of rising fees, declining enrolments and inadequate government funding is also having an effect on the complement of university teaching faculty. A rash of early retirement incentive programs, coupled with fewer new hires and replacements, has led to an overall attrition in full-time faculty of approximately twelve hundred in the past two years. There is no recent data available to indicate if part-time hires are increasing as a result.

In Canada, education receives public funding because Canadians recognize the importance of a highly educated workforce in driving the nation's economy. In fact, when the Department of Finance undertook its 1996 opinion survey on economic issues, 93 per cent of Canadians surveyed ranked education as the most important issue facing the country. This same survey found that the majority of Canadians support measures that help the economy over the long term. One such long term measure is investing in a strong educational system.

Public support for higher education is strong, but public funding is eroding. Much is made of the role played by a highly educated population in placing Canada in a strong position in the "global economy."

Burdening youth with debt by removing public funds from the education system surely runs counter to achieving the country's goals.

1 Don Little. Financing Universities: Why are students paying more?" Statistics Canada. Education Quarterly Review. Summer 1997. Vol. 4, No. 2 Pages 10-26.

2 Statistics Canada. The Daily. August 25, 1997.

3 AUCC. Undergraduate enrolment forecasts: A tricky science. Research File. Vol. 2, No. 1. April 1997. Page 9.