"Current tuition levels in Canada would have prevented many of you from getting the post-secondary education you did," CAUT executive director James Turk told members of the federal government's caucus committee on post-secondary education at last month's Liberal summer caucus retreat.
"For those of you who could have gone under these circumstances, many of you would have had to make different career choices because of the substantial debts you would have incurred to pay for your education," Turk added.
CAUT was one of 22 national organizations invited to address the committee on the theme of access and what the federal government can do to help ensure greater accessibility to post-secondary education.
Tom Breneman, president of the Canadian Dental Association, told the more than two dozen MPs and senators that professional school fees are preventing many students from pursuing professional education and encumbering others with massive debts that will skew where they choose to work after graduation.
"When I entered the dental program at the University of Manitoba, tuition fees were in the neighbourhood of $500 a year. My family was not particularly affluent, so $500 was not peanuts, but it was manageable," Breneman said.
"It meant my debt on graduation was about $3,000 - which was about 10 per cent of what I could expect to earn in a single year of practice. Now, with current tuition fees and other educational costs, many students are looking at debts equal to two to three years' income. That's why smaller and rural areas are experiencing shortages, and many graduates are choosing to go to established practices in large urban centres."
Canadian Federation of Students national chair, Ian Boyko, took exception to some points by presenters who talked about access in terms of "capacity" rather than cost.
"When tuition fees are $22,000 for law school, Canadians aren't repeating the AUCC/ACCC line 'Access to what?' Fees are a financial barrier, and quality/capacity is a different discussion," he argued.
He also expressed concern with the suggestion that raising loan limits was an effective way to deal with the problem.
"We feel increasing the loan limit is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline," contended Boyko.
Norman Riddell, executive director of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, told the committee that the issue of access is not just finding a place for everyone who wants to attend, but it also involves providing equitable access. He pointed out there were unrealistic expectations about what parents can afford - in some cases amounting to 50 per cent of after-tax income.
In summing up, Turk reminded committee members of the decisive role federal funding played, beginning in the 1950s, in the transformation of Canadian post-secondary education from a small, highly elite system into a broad-based and high quality one. But he also warned this is being reversed because of the severe federal cutbacks in the past decade.
He urged the committee to support a new funding mechanism, based on the model of the Canada Health Act and the Canada Health Transfer, that would spell out national guidelines and a dedicated Canada Education Transfer fund.
"This will allow the federal government to increase its spending with the assurance that federal contributions will be used to support a high quality, public, equitable and accessible system that Canadians want, and which we need and deserve," Turk said.
In comments after the presentations, Senator Laurier LaPierre said the system was "immoral," in speaking of the proliferation of different federal funding programs and skyrocketing fees.
Paul Ledwell, executive director of the Canadian Federation of Humanities and Social Sciences, described the summer caucus as good opportunity to get the key issues before not only members of the post-secondary education caucus committee but also other members and senators, including cabinet ministers.
"This year's meeting was particularly clear in conveying the lack of capacity in our universities and the lack of a good mechanism that ensures core financial support for our institutions," Ledwell said. "The effects of this gap are especially being felt in the humanities and social sciences."
Committee chair Peter Adams, the MP for Peterborough, promised to ensure that post-secondary issues will remain prominently before members of the Liberal caucus.