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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 2004

Say No to Eliminating Tuition Fees

Regarding "Eliminating Tuition Fees Would Make Manitoba a National Leader," (Bulletin, Dec. 2003). There is something that has to be thrashed out before the scholarly community in Canada comes to look ridiculously stupid.

Errol Black and Robert Chernomas declare there is "... a wealth of evidence demonstrating that the benefits of an educated population reach far beyond individual students." They need to be challenged to lay out that evidence. I have assiduously worked through the literature on the economics of higher education and can find no convincing evidence whatsoever for social externalities to university instruction.

There is indeed an abundance of evidence that societies benefit economically from higher education. Societies, however, are made up of individuals and the individuals who receive the education, for the most part, get financially rewarded for it.

The economic benefits of university instruction accrue to the individuals who receive that instruction and to the shareholders of the enterprises which employ them. To subsidize them is to favour the economically well situated in society. It is a large, regressive transfer. Is that really what members of the professoriate wish to promote?

Universities do generate externalities or spillovers to the benefit of society as a whole, but those derive from their research function. As producers of new knowledge the universities warrant subsidization. The economics literature is clear on that point.

In their function, however, of passing on the accumulated body of knowledge to individuals of the younger generation, and in sharpening the ability of those young individuals to think critically and creatively there is very little spillover to society at large.

In response to this claim some are sure to bring up the long-standing defense of public education generally - that democratic societies benefit from having an educated citizenry. Fifty or 100 years ago we had just as thriving a democracy as we have today, and we accomplished that with a population that generally went no further than secondary school. Some of us might be cynical enough to think universities now have to make up for the deficiencies of lower levels of education, but that would be a dubious foundation upon which to make a claim for free, public university education.

It is important that the professoriate understand the nature of the valid claim that universities have upon the resources of society and not be found to be promoting a massive transfer of economic benefit in favour of the better-off members of society. If we get the story wrong the backlash ultimately could be devastating to universities. We, after all, make our claim for support on the basis of our ability to do clear and correct analysis.

Marvin McInnis
Professor Emeritus of Economics, Queen's University