In the report titled Eduflation and the High Cost of Learning, CCPA researchers David Macdonald and Erika Shaker developed a "cost of learning index" to examine the affordability of higher education across Canada. They did this by examining trends and comparing provincial priorities to show how economic and education finance policies interact, making university more or less affordable across Canada.
Their scan of policies shows that most provincial governments have chosen to respond to affordability concerns by providing "after the fact" assistance through debt-relief schemes, loan forgiveness, tax credits, or zero interest. While these interventions provide some relief to students, many continue to struggle to pay upfront costs.
Some provinces have addressed affordability concerns through tuition freezes and rollbacks, making the cost of education more affordable. A summary of where the provinces sit is outlined in the full report. The following provides a few highlights with a focus on the state in Manitoba.
Quebec -- In spite of some modest increases over the past two decades, Quebec's university tuition fees have been consistently the lowest in Canada, even when other compulsory fees are included. Before the recent election, the provincial Liberal government passed legislation to increase tuition fees by 82 per cent over the next seven years. If implemented, it would end Quebec's reign as the province with the lowest fees. The newly elected PQ government has pledged to reverse the decision but a timeline has not been confirmed.
Quebec's policy of low tuition has ensured families living at the poverty line were better able to pursue university than low-income families in other provinces. But by 2009-10, Newfoundland and Labrador had taken over the position as the most affordable province for low-income families pursuing university.
Newfoundland and Labrador -- Throughout the 1990s, Newfoundland and Labrador's tuition fees were at approximately the Canadian average. In 1999-2000, the province implemented a freeze and over the next three years rolled fees back to 1996-97 levels where they were frozen. As a result, and coupled with solid income growth, the cost of learning plummeted. Newfoundland and Labrador now replaces Quebec as the province where university education is the most affordable. By 2015-16, it will be twice as affordable for median-income families to go to university in Newfoundland compared with the 1990 Canadian average.
For families with two children living on the poverty line, Newfoundland and Labrador had the second-lowest rank on the cost of learning index in 1990-91. Newfoundland and Labrador was in the middle of the pack after its freeze and rollbacks couple with income growth. If current trends continue, it is expected to become even more affordable -- even as the cost of learning for families at the poverty line in most other provinces is projected to rise.
Manitoba -- Although Manitoba's tuition and compulsory fees from 1990 to 2000 were at about the national average, in the early 2000s the province froze tuition fees, then implemented a 10 per cent rollback bringing levels to third lowest in Canada after Quebec and Newfoundland.
Manitoba's cost of learning for median-income families rose to a high point in 1999-2000, after which it declined more or less consistently. This improvement had at least as much to do with economic growth as a commitment to lower fees -- median incomes increased at a rate greater than that of tuition fees, which were rising by two per cent annually. By 2001-02, Manitoba's cost of learning was slightly better than the national average, and by 2003-04 it had become the third most affordable. If current income growth trends continue at three per cent, by 2015-16 Manitoba will be second only to Newfoundland and Labrador if increases in Quebec come into effect.
For low-income families, the cost of learning in Manitoba increased from 1990 to its highest point in 1999-2000. From that point on, it declined.
But the story in Manitoba is not all good news. Manitoba recently enacted Bill 2 - the Protecting Affordability for University Students Act. The Canadian Federation of Students has expressed concern with the bill. While the bill has been presented as legislation that will protect the affordability of university by tying tuition increases to the cost of living, there is concern universities will use other means to raise revenues on the backs of students.
For example, Bill 2 allows universities to use ancillary fees to fund core teaching and research activities. Another concern about Bill 2 is the exclusion of college, international and professional program students, leaving only 47 per cent of students protected. The student federation has proposed several recommendations to strengthen Bill 2 to ensure post secondary education remains affordable for all students.
Ontario -- Ontario's fees have consistently been among the highest in the country. The response has focused on tuition rebates for qualifying students, leaving Ontario as the best example of why affordability needs to be tackled through reduced up-front costs in addition to after-the-fact relief. The cost of learning index shows that compared with other provinces the rebate has had minimal effect, particularly for low-income families, because tuition fees are so high to begin with.
Which way forward?
Education is regularly hailed as the answer to a multitude of social and economic concerns. It would seem logical the best way to ensure Canadians have the education they need to fully participate in society is to ensure the cost of learning is accessible and affordable for all.
Shauna MacKinnon is the director of CCPA Manitoba. The full report by Erika Shaker and David Macdonald is available at www.policyalternatives.ca